The Design of HAL 9000

The nefarious star of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a room computer. Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer (HAL) has a visible red lens, but there is an entire room dedicated to housing its machinery. Stanley Kubrick wrote and directed 2001 in 1968. He was in development with the film for years prior; the 1964 World’s Fair–in Corona Park, Queens–was a landmark moment for Kubrick’s conception of HAL.

At the Fair, Kubrick saw a wide-screen 70mm projection of a film TO THE MOON AND BEYOND in the Transportation and Travel Pavilion. He soon hired away three of the film’s producers, Lester Novros, Con Pederson, and Douglas Trumbull who were working for the production company Graphic Films. As found in the Museum of the Moving Image’s permanent collection, Pederson sent a telegraph to Kubrick in 1965 about the design of HAL, which was then named Athena. “For the computer system and its visible manifestations, we have done some investigating along the lines suggested by Max Palevsky, head of Scientific Data Systems, one of the hottest computer designers goings. The inescapable conclusion is that computers will be reduced virtually to little featureless magic boxes in a decade or so.” HAL is voice responsive, so has no buttons. As seen up until the end by the spacecraft inhabitants, it is a mere circle enclosed in a remote-sized rectangle.

The company IBM also had a pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The IBM pavilion was designed by Charles and Ray Eames. As design historian Volker Fischer, in the Stanley Kubrick catalogue published by the Deutsches Filmmuseum, writes about 2001, “[HAL’s] brain room has a transparent geometry, augmented by acrylic glass, light and lucid grids.” Given that Kubrick was at the Fair, it is probable that he saw the IBM pavilion with the Eames’ sleek monitors and geometric shapes. In order to design a computer that wouldn’t seem “outdated,” Pederson suggested that the “first guideline [for drawing HAL] is elegant simplicity.”

The Museum of the Moving Image will be projecting 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 70mm on August 3, 4, 5, and 6.