The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

It* came from outer space

*Reed's technology, that is

So Reed can invent anything, can he?

If Reed can invent anything, he must be a jerk.
At first glance, Reed's technology is a problem. Even the simplest of his inventions would change the world, so why doesn't it? If Reed invented these things he is either a jerk for not sharing them, or his world is completely unrealistic because if those things existed they would change the political and economic landscape. TVtropes has a whole section devoted to the problem:

TV tropes

Of course, some of Reed's inventions did become part of the real world:

"Mr. Fantastic also developed many prototype gadgets that predate regular use in actual households (due to the foresight of Lee and more likely, the progressive Kirby). The whole world can now thank Reed Richards for coming up with the X-Ray Camera (FF #10), Transistorized (metal) Detector (#31), Micro-Wave Chamber (#32), Solar Energy Activator (#69) and most importantly, 'The World’s First Fully-Automated Dish-Washer Mechanism' (#44)!" (Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

This is how Reed funds the FF: with microwave ovens and dish washers. But there is no sign of faster than light travel or universal translators in the real world. Soon we will see why.

If he can invent anything, the stories make no sense.

In the real world, inventions take time. Even a simple invention can take decades to perfect. it is not enough to be a genius: even if the idea is correct it still requires testing to eliminate unknown and unknowable factors. As for the theory behind it, even the greatest genius can be stumped. Einstein spent most of his life trying to reconcile electromagnetism with the other fundamental forces, and failed. And most scientists do this full time - they don't have to be full time adventurers as well! Reed simply does not have the time to invent so much stuff, no matter how brilliant he is.

If he can invent anything, the stories become dull.

If Reed can invent anything, then he becomes impossible to relate to. His mind would be on some other plane. It also makes stories pointless: he could solve any problem any time, so where is the danger?

What the stories say: a summary

Let's look at what the stories actually say. We will see that Reed gets all his most amazing inventions from three places:

  1. The ship left by Gormuu before the team began (see FF271)
  2. The Skrull ship captured in FF2
  3. The planet X saucer given to the team, in FF7.

Reed is a genius: he has to be in order to make the alien stuff work. But he does not invent it: he adapts what he can scavenge. He often has just a single working example of each invention, and does not always know how they work. He also takes full advantage of every alien contact, to try to learn more.

Reed does not understand all his stuff

In this early pin up, from the first FF annual, Reed admits that he doesn't know what this contraption is. Most people took this as a joke.

Reed doesn't know

He said the same in the comics: e.g. in FF issue 37 we see Reed using a power amplifier, which draws power from "an unknown source from somewhere beyond the confines of the solar system" - even Reed does not know how it works! Clearly he is developing alien tech. Later in that issue he uses the same power amplifying technology in a prototype star ship.

Where Reed gets his ideas

Whenever Reed Richards invent a new technology, look back a few months: you will often see an alien using something similar, and they left it behind on Earth.

studying alien technology

Reed is within the normal range of human intellect

In FF 68, Reed went to Dr Santini for advice on chemistry: Santini, a regular scientist, knew more about chemistry than Reed: showing that Reed is within the normal range of expertise.

So why does it sometimes look like Reed can invent anything? FF annual 15 is the key text here (see discussion). The history of the Skrull power beam / matter transmitter is highly revealing. Reed can achieve dramatic results very quickly by adapting alien technology. But he is most proud of a very small improvement, even though it took him months. Ben comments that he might get the Nobel prize for it, indicating that his achievements are not usually of that level. It is possible that Reed is still the smartest person on the planet and that the Nobel committee is just prejudiced, but this does put his genius into perspective.  Reed then says he might get funding for "real" research into faster than light travel, despite using faster than light travel for years: this suggests that until this time he was using alien technology.


All this presupposes alien visits. Is this realistic? You might argue that aliens have never actually invaded Earth. But how would you know? If an alien race was vastly more advanced then they would not look like anything we expect. So hiding would be easy.
Given the scale of the universe there must be numerous vastly more advanced races out there. The only question is whether they can overcome the speed of light problem? That's a technical problem, and advanced races are pretty much defined by their ability to solve technical problems. Would they be interested in use? Sure. Advanced beings, almost by definition, are curious, and do not waste resources. We are a resource.

It follows then that alien contact is plausible. It appears that they sometimes leave the odd flying saucer behind.

Thanks to Doc Shallot for this revealing scan from The Illuminati.

Now let's look at Fantastic Four science, issue by issue, to see where the ideas come from.

Before Fantastic Four 1: superheroes always come after spaceships

Superhero technology all comes from studying alien technology left by invaders.

It is no coincidence that superheroes follow spaceships. In the 1930s we got Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the birth of the science fiction pulp. Then in the 1940s we got the golden age of superheroes, using the technology they got from outer space. the most famous superhero, Superman, was himself an alien. Then in the 1950s we got another wave of comics recording alien invasions. Which was followed by the 1960s and superheroes who used the alien tech. Take the greatest scientist of them all: Mr Fantastic, head of the Fantastic Four. Just before the Fantastic Four began, Reed discovered an alien spaceship (you can read all about it in Fantastic Four 271).

Reed explores Gormuu's alien space ship, and begins to learn how it works. He then defeats the alien, who of course leaves his ship behind. Soon after, Reed completes his own experimental star ship (in Fantastic Four issue one). Coincidence? I don't think so.

Fantastic Four 2: Skrull transport

In the second issue of the Fantastic Four the team gain possession of a space craft disguised as a water tower: they used it to return to Earth once the Skrull mother ship had left. This craft has three notable features.

  1. First, it doesn't look much like a rocket. Clearly its propulsion system can be placed in any non-aerodynamic object.
  2. Second, it can land itself with very little effort. It lands without most of the team even noticing.
  3. Third, it must be nearly silent. How do we know? Although the colorist has added red and yellow, as if it uses rockets, this means nothing because the same comic can be colored in wildly different ways (we'll discuss coloring later). What we do know is that the Skrull invasion was secret, and it is made clear at the end that the public are still completely ignorant. Also, when the Fantastic Four landed in it they didn't even notice until the "split second" when they came to rest. So the craft must have been almost silent.

After the Skrulls leave, what do we see? Mr Fantastic has suddenly invented a new car. it has three notable features:

  1. First, it doesn't look much like a vehicle. It looks like a bathtub with ugly controls, yet is capable of amazing speed, range and maneuverability.
  2. Second, it can land itself with very little effort. It lands without most of the team even noticing.
  3. Second, it's nearly silent. Reed calls it "air powered" and it clearly causes no problems for people below.
Notice that Sue is not impressed by its power, but only by its ability to land itself, and by the rooftop. Technically, making a flying bathtub would be far more impressive, but that part was just borrowed from the Skrulls. Sue is more impressed with the parts that Reed added himself.

Fantastic Four 2: a torch suit and anti gravity gear.

Also in FF2, the team gain possession of a flaming torch suit and an anti gravity pack. (They also gained an electronic detonator, but that was less ).


This was apparently stolen by the Wizard (a master thief, and in the early days he Baxter building was not well defended). Soon after he suddenly appeared with an identical looking suit.

The wizard did not at first work out how to operate the anti gravity pack, so used a small rocket instead (much of the lift would be from the thermal updraft from the flame). Soon after this he is sent to jail, and has plenty of time to think. While there he finally works out how anti gravity works. Coincidence? I don't think so.

He must have taken the original pack to pieces, because the Fantastic Four came into possession of the torch suit when the Wizard was in jail, but the anti-gravity pack was never seen again.

Anti-gravity became the Wizard's signature technology, his greatest ever achievement.

Fantastic Four 2: unstable molecules

This is where I get controversial, so hear me out. The team's clothing in issue 1 changed with them. So they had one set of clothes that stretched, withstood extreme flame, etc. but that changed in issue 3: they suddenly obtained another set. What happened?

Before I examine issue 3 closely, I need to mention the coloring:

As you can see, the coloring changes in different reprints, so cannot be relied on. In the argument that follows, look at the shapes and ignore the colors.

It appears that the Fantastic Four only had one set of clothes that adapted to their powers. Note that Ben's costume did not need special powers. They only needed three special suits. Back in issue 2, that is exactly what they got: One of the four Skrulls escaped, but the other three were captured.

When prisoners are captured it is normal to confiscate their uniforms. (Cows don't need clothes anyway.)

Do Skrulls wear clothes?
Some people think the Skrulls don't have separate uniforms, but the art shows their clothing changing in separate folds. More important, clothing in the Skrull society seems to reflect status: compare these lowly uniforms to the queen's costume in annual 19. Skrull clothes adapt to whatever the Skrulls need: in other worlds, they are made of unstable molecules. So the Fantastic Four gain three unstable molecule costumes in issue 2, and in issue 3, Sue appears with three unstable molecule costumes. Not Reed, but Sue. Reed seems surprised.

Occam's razor states that we should not multiply elements needlessly. They have three ideal costumes from the Skrulls. All that Sue did was alter the design. How? We can easily guess. This is probably a manifestation of her invisibility power: if Sue was holding a Skrull costume when she changed the she would have noticed it change as well. A little experimenting would show that it would take on any characteristics nearby. Attaching some colored blue material (flameproof in Johnny's case) would render the entire costume blue, and so on.Note that the Skrull costumes already had belts and neck-bands: Sue merely tweaked what was already there.

In FF6, Johnny states that their costumes are made to withstand the extreme conditions of space. Yet in FF1 it is clear that Reed has no idea what to expect in space: the cosmic rays for example were a surprise. But Johnny knows that these costumes were designed for outer space Skrulls.


Fantastic Four 5: Technology borrowed from the future

In Fantastic Four issue five we meet Dr Doom, who has an impressive collection of advanced technology. Where did he get it from? Well, he has a time machine, so where do you think he got it from? Later (in issue 271) we discover that Reed's father had the time machine first. But Reed's father is known for having secrets and not always telling the whole truth, so where did he get it from? Whatever the answer, he had access to all the advanced technology he could ever need, and never needed to invent a thing.

Fantastic Four 7: The best technology that planet X can offer

In issue seven of the Fantastic Four, the team visits Planet X. This story is especially interesting for three reasons.

First, we see that aliens recognize Reed's special talent: he can see totally new alien technology, and within minutes he has a pretty good idea how to use it. Their planet only has 48 hours to survive, and they figure the best way to use the first 24 hours is to fetch Reed Richards and then show him all their technology. That is Reed's real skill, in using other people's technology in new and inventive ways. He is an explorer, not a researcher. he explores what is already there and finds new paths through it. He can stretch his mind far further than his body.

Second, we see that Reed obtains a flying saucer from planet X, and we later see it as a trophy in the Baxter Building. So there is absolutely no doubt that he stores alien technology. Seriously, I ask you, why would a scientist ever do slow and tedious primary research when he has fully developed advanced technology waiting to be explored in his lab? And he knew the planet would blow up, so you can bet he filled the ship with their best equipment before he left.

The third reason why issue seven is important is the ending: Reed lies to an entire world, for their greater good. In issue 271, referred to earlier, he also reveals that he lied to Ben Grimm about Ben's ability to change state. So we see that Reed is quite happy to tell lies if he thinks it is for the greater good. You still think he does primary research himself? That he reinvents the wheel? He lets people think he does, but the evidence says otherwise.

Ever wondered why Reed never flies that saucer any more, and why you don't see Gormuu's ship in the Baxter Building? Because he's cannibalized them for parts, that's why!

FF9: Why Reed must rely on alien tech

I'm not suggesting that Reed does no research at all. But to what extent does he perform his own research, and to what extent does he simply build on alien tech? Issue nine may hold the answers.

FF 9 begins when Reed tries primary research into curing the Thing ... and fails. This is a good example of real world science. Real world science needs many failed attempts for every tentative success. Time and again Reed tried to cure The Thing by his own efforts. (The alien tech is generally physics based, and Ben's problem is biological). And look where it gets him: disappointment and failure every time. meanwhile, while he's busy spending long hours in the lab, the other areas of his life are neglected. The Fantastic Four end up going bankrupt! We see Reed's own inventions being sold (note that he does not sell the flying saucer). This really tears him up inside. Reed tortures himself for his failure.

No doubt he vows that he will do whatever it takes to ensure they are never again in this humiliating financial position. And sure enough, in later years when the team has financial problems Reed is never too worried and seems able to produce new patents whenever he needed extra cash. An ordinary scientist, even a super genius, could not do this. But someone with a collection of alien technology could do it easily.

FF10: where Doctor Doom gets his scientific marvels

Reed is not the only one who borrows alien tech. In issue ten, Dr Doom reveals that many of the marvels he possesses come from an alien race. Faced with enemies who use alien technology, it is not laziness for Reed to also use alien tech. It is a matter of survival for the Fantastic Four... and the human race!

Later in that story, Dr Doom uses one of his new devices: a shrinking ray. At the time he is disguised as Reed Richards, and of course leaves the ray in the Baxter Building when he is accidentally shrunk. It is no coincidence that in a later issue Reed has a shrinking ray at his disposal (for entering the microverse).

And so it goes on. They see the technology in action, and later they "invent" something similar.

More about unstable molecules

When Skrull molecules become part of other living things, those living things take on unstable molecule like properties, as Reed Richards explains in FF annual 17. Note that unstable molecules include a sense of purpose - in the Skrull case, a desire for war.

Unstable molecules imitate and follow

Let's get back to the topic of unstable molecules. The real power of unstable molecules is not that they can change their behavior, but they can detect what the wearer is doing. In other words, they have some kind of sense of purpose, and a connection with nearby molecules.


Unstable molecules are based on "stubborn atoms," the building blocks for all super powers. Stubborn atoms adjust in order to maintain their default state. Normally this default state is recorded inside the atom. With unstable molecules the default state is obtained from nearby atoms. note that "nearby" at a quantum, scale merely means entangled - the parent atom could be a universe away.

Obviously this is hard to get right. How do unstable molecules know which other atoms to copy? It's a tricky problem, but once some advanced alien race has solved the problem all kinds of control becomes possible. For example, here the Human Torch creates flame and then shapes it, controlling it as he would control his own body, but in a weaker and more limited way:

Johnny doesn't do that so often now, as his enemies probably realize that these flame models don't really do much - water or asbestos can defeat them. But Reed understood the implications: unstable molecules can maintain a will of their own and communicate with each other. In short, they can be the building blocks of life.

Diablo switches regular molecules into unstable molecules

Soon after this, Reed came across a man with the ability to inject unstable molecules into anything, to enhance its natural abilities for a time. The man was Diablo, and his alchemy was clearly obtained from someone else, no doubt aliens.

In some rare cases, as with the Dragon Man model, the host is uniquely suitable, and the unstable molecule become a permanent part of the host body. Diablo's potion only need to be a very small dose: the potion is merely a catalyst that activates properties that are already dormant in all atoms, as Reed explained:

The breakthrough: the Awesome Android

Unstable molecules are usually rejected by their host after a while, so Diablo's miracles seldom last. After seeing what Diablo achieved, Reed tried to duplicate the process, and was able to create a single celled artificial life form. But like most of Diablo's miracles it was too unstable to last long. At this point enter The Mad Thinker.

The Mad Thinker is not much good at creativity, but give him a problem that requires massive processing power - like scaling up and stabilizing an existing technology and he's in his element! He was able to create his own version of the Dragon Man - a slow witted but powerful android. Reed immediately saw the implications. Unlike the Dragon Man, this android was built with unstable molecules from the ground up, so just like the FF's costumes he would be able to duplicate any nearby abilities.

Note that these androids have basic abilities but not high intelligence. They simply mimic the abilities or purpose of something else, making them susceptible to outside control.

Mind control

Since all molecules can potentially become unstable molecules, and unstable molecules can be controlled, it's easy to see how mind control works: Professor X, or the Puppet Master with his radioactive clay, or the original Miracle Man and his super hypnotism, merely target portions of the human brain and trigger the latent ability to obey.

Of course, I make it sound easy. being able to target the precise parts of the brain and control them in just the right way is extremely complicated, which is why very few people can do it, and then not for very long.

Where Reed Richards leads, others follow

Once the Awesome Android had shown the way, the same technology was adapted by others, hence the Super-Adaptoid, or The Mimic (a young man genetically engineered by his father).

How Reed invents: step by step

Whenever Reed visits an alien environment, he takes a lot of super high resolution photos

Back to Reed Richards: the Negative Zone

After rockets (based on technology from Gormuu, Skrulls and planet X), unstable molecules (based on Skrull uniforms) and the android (an extension of the unstable molecule idea), Reed's greatest invention is his portal into the Negative Zone. This was intended as merely a way to access subspace, and once again came about from copying alien tech.

It is standard operating procedure from Reed Richards to take high resolution photographs of any advanced technology, the study it and try to duplicate it, using whatever alien artifacts he's gathered over the years. The Negative Zone portal was no different. He saw the need (Earth was in danger from beings who could access subspace), he had recently gained new insights (the inhumans had a Negative Zone barrier surrounding the great refuge, and Johnny Storm crossed hyperspace to obtain the Ultimate Nullifier). So he used his photos of alien circuitry, no doubt along with the faster than light drives from Gormuu's ship and the Planet X saucer, and came up with a prototype hyperspace gateway that seemed to work:

How can Reed Richards patent stuff he "stole?"

Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four live from the income derived by patents. How can they do that if the inventions were just borrowed from somewhere else? Simple. Earth patents only apply on earth.

Besides, it takes considerable intelligence to make alien technology work. How do you reverse engineer a flying saucer? Most people couldn't do it, but Reed can, so he deserves his money. Whenever you see Reed tinkering in his lab he's just thinking of new ways of applying the stuff he developed from the flying saucer, the time machine, and so on.

And Reed did not steal the technology. Some was given to him (e.g. the flying saucer from planet X) and other stuff was left here by invading enemies, or obtained legitimately (e.g. it was nothing special when he picked it up in the future). Reed is no thief.

How does this technology work?

All this technology may seem diverse and complicated, but it's all a variation on the same thing: unstable molecules, as discussed elsewhere on this web site. Super power, super speed, super intelligence, it's all the same basic principle, whether you have it in human body, a mechanical suit, or a space ship.

This also explains how such advanced technology can exist in a world that otherwise resembles our own, and how superhero scientists can combine amazingly advanced technology with very mundane stuff, and how superhero scientists can invent things so quickly. They simply don't know how these things work, just as most people don't know how a computer or a car works, but we find new and interesting uses for them.

How do other superheroes get alien tech?

In these examples I've followed Reed Richards, but similar observations could be made regarding Iron Man, or The Leader, or any other character who uses extremely advanced technology. They meet aliens, and a few issues later their own technology has a radical upgrade. Where do they get the technology? It's not rocket science. It's alien science.

What about heroes who never meet aliens? Superheroes are constantly teaming up, or bumping into each other. And most of them have come into contact with aliens at some time or other. It's perfectly natural for the alien technology to diffuse far and wide.

Spider-man had limited supplies of super-web fluid

Where did Spider-man get his amazing webbing? In the comics it looked like he just dreamed it up, but look closer: First, Peter Parker was a nerd who would be familiar with all the local universities. Universities that are the repository for all the artifacts collected during the 1950s alien invasions. Second, his early webbing was much better than his later stuff. Just look at these examples from the very early days:

If Peter made all his own webbing, why was the early webbing better than the later material? it can only be because he was using up chemicals created by someone else. Almost certainly chemicals he discovered on a shelf at a local university, collected from one of the 1950s alien visits, or perhaps from the 1940s Spider Queen villain, who used a similar material. When that was used up he had to synthesize it himself, and he never worked out how to do the super webbing, just the basic stuff.

Paste Pot Pete used the same stuff

In 1963, at the same time that Peter Parker started using webbing, Paste Pot Pete found something very similar. For more about Pete, click here.The early webbing and paste both dissolved in an hour, and were both used in very similar ways, except one liquid was thick and the other was usually (but not always) thin.

Why don't regular people use more alien tech?

Alien tech is often highly dangerous (blasters, star ships, etc.) Skrull technology is especially dangerous as they have a different attitude to safety. It blows your head off? Just grow another one.

Governments will do all in their power to get hold of alien tech for themselves, and stop its unauthorized use. But governments are highly bureaucratic, so alien tech is often stolen. The only people who can defend it are superheroes and super villains. That's why superheroes have alien tech, and the rest of us don't.

And the rest is history.

In conclusion, look at anything great that Reed ever invented, and look back a few months. You'll see evidence that he gets it from the aliens. And why not? Why reinvent the wheel? Or the flying car? Or the spaceship? Or the hyperspace portal? Or...

The Great American Novel