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Extraterrestrial engineering

In the 1950s, Earth-bound MIT students made aliens feel more at home.

assignments from Arnold's class
Protruding from a packing crate is the hand of a Methanian, a fake alien creature John Arnold dreamed up and documented so his students could design products for it. Their inventions included the Eggomobile and the electric Acustom Coupe.John E Arnold

In the fall of 1951, about 20 MIT engineering students received a missive from a planet more than 30 light-years from Earth. Confidential documents and memos, printed on letterhead dated 1,000 years in the future, detailed the discovery of intelligent life on a planet called Arcturus IV and outlined what humans knew about their alien brethren. 

The Methanians, as this alien race would be known, were dramatically different from humans. Descended from birds, the three-eyed, feather-covered creatures lived on a frigid planet with a methane-based atmosphere and gravity 11 times stronger than that on Earth, which, according to 2951 documentation, was now a planet called “Terra.” The high pressure and -100 °C temperatures of Arcturus IV forced Methanians to move slowly, using their long arms with three claws to balance. A two-second stimulus-response lag prevented them from attempting anything that required quick reaction time. 

Compared to humans, Methanians had superior hearing, vocal range, and sight, including x-ray vision. They subsisted on ammonia instead of water and could employ limited telepathic abilities under duress. They had advanced atomic energy technology, but otherwise their tech lagged behind that of Earth. According to memos from Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders, Inc., this made Arcturus IV a prime market for household products designed for Methanians by Terra’s brightest young engineers. The mission to build modern conveniences for aliens was called “Project Dishpan.” 

Over roughly three weeks, students in John E. Arnold’s Product Design class immersed themselves in the Methanians’ delightfully detailed sci-fi universe, all in an effort to rethink the rules of engineering here on Earth. The set-up was elaborate: Arnold’s case study, crafted with help from the MIT Science Fiction Society, included fake scientific briefs, physiological and psychological evaluations, environmental reports, and market analyses.

Fictional though these materials were, the assignment was real, and difficult. Designs had to be optimized for Methanians, buildable using Earth materials and methods, and realistically functional within Arcturus’s parameters. By plunging students into an unfamiliar world that would upend the most basic assumptions about how machines function and who uses them, Arnold hoped to cultivate imagination as well as technical expertise, and to challenge the then prevailing idea that creativity was innate and couldn’t be developed. 

“There are not many places in the curriculum of a technical school where speculation can be indulged in,” Arnold wrote when the case study was published in 1952, “yet speculation has been responsible for most of our scientific advancements.”

Arnold’s nontraditional teaching methods, considered publicity stunts by some engineers, may have sprung from his own unorthodox path into engineering. Voted “Most Talented” and “Most Popular” by his high school class, he studied psychology in college and graduated directly into the Great Depression. With jobs in short supply, he worked as a night watchman in an oil plant, where he began teaching himself engineering and design by reading technical reports that were lying on the president’s desk. He became part owner of an auto repair shop, trained as a mechanic, and moved to an industrial machinery plant, where he quickly became a designer. He then enrolled at MIT, earned a master’s in mechanical engineering in 1940, and returned just two years later to teach. 

Arnold’s pedagogical methods embraced problems MIT students weren’t accustomed to encountering. For example, in response to his own dental trouble, he challenged his Product Design class to work with professional researchers from the dental school at Tufts to design a “dental mobilometer” that could measure the looseness of a patient’s teeth following gum treatment. Students’ positive response inspired him to revamp the class as Creative Engineering, which would help lead a rapid expansion in design courses at the Institute. 

The work in this class would fall under the auspices of Arnold’s newly launched Creative Engineering Laboratory. Here, students grappled with the psychological, marketing, and production aspects of design alongside the engineering challenges. He called on them to become what he called “positive nonconformists.” Outlandish ideas were encouraged. As reported in Life magazine, Arnold exhorted his students to follow the advice of advertising executive and brainstorming inventor Alex Osborn: “It’s easier to tone down a wild idea than to tone up a dull one. You have millions of potential circuits waiting in your brains—try to plug in on as many as you can without having a conscience or judgment say ‘no’ before the idea is even formed or reformed.”

And what better way to test the limits of imagination than by pushing students out of this world? Arnold unveiled the Arcturus project in 1951, and the assignment soon expanded from home products to transportation and farming technologies. Students designed, and in some cases tried to actually build, such inventions as a clock that followed Arcturus’s 159-hour-long days (using Methanian units of time and a base-six numerical system), a pneumatic hammer designed to pulverize hard, volcanic soil in underground farms where plants grow upside down, and a vehicle called the Eggomobile whose eight-mile-per-hour speed and oval shape were designed to maximize aliens’ safety as well as “the protective security they enjoyed before hatching.” 

Even though the Arcturus project was only one piece of Arnold’s engineering course—other assignments focused on reimagining what he called “more prosaic, earthly designs” like railroad boxcars—industry and the media took notice. On top of teaching MIT students, Arnold was soon leading summer seminars that introduced executives from organizations like Eastman Kodak, Bell Labs, and RCA to the Methanians, and he helped General Motors establish its own creative engineering program. By the time he took a full professorship at Stanford in 1957, his summer seminars featured guest lectures by creativity pioneers including psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. 

Arnold’s students moved into jobs where they designed things like tiny surgical knives doctors could strap to their fingers, machines that automatically polished TV panels, and GM’s Firebird II concept car. Although Arnold died from a heart attack while on sabbatical in Italy in 1963, his philosophy on education and creativity helped lay the foundation for design thinking, a method currently used to conceive and develop design ideas, and for modern-day engineering curricula, which Arnold contended should reward fresh ideas and approaches over orthodoxy. 

One of Arnold’s grad students, Raymond Pittman, SM ’55, summed up his advisor’s philosophy succinctly in his thesis: “Many attributes that are ‘obvious’ are overlooked by ‘experts’ or those too familiar with the product. To quote Professor John Arnold, ‘I don’t believe one has to be an amateur to innovate, but it may be true that he has to think like one.’”

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