After Hours

Geek Trivia: Name the time and place

What famous brand shown in <i>2001: A Space Odyssey</i> shares an eerie but coincidental connection to the HAL 9000 computer's name?

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Both literary science-fiction fans and outer-space movie aficionados are today celebrating the birth of perhaps the most famous fictional computer in history—HAL 9000, the enigmatic artificial intelligence from both the book and the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But ask each of these respective groups what HAL's "age" is today, and you'll likely hear two different answers.

In the novel (and screenplay), HAL first came to life on Jan. 12, 1997, but on the big screen, HAL's birthday is Jan. 12, 1992. So based on the source material, HAL turns either 8 or 13 years old today.

Then again, both the book and the film debuted in 1968, so HAL could arguably be in his late 30s. Regardless of his actual age, HAL and the works of fiction that spawned him have served as cultural benchmarks for the progress of consumer technology.

Going by author Arthur C. Clarke's and director Stanley Kubrick's late-1960s estimations, we should be currently enjoying passenger space flights, stays aboard orbital luxury hotels, and careers on the surface of the moon—to say nothing of working with fully self-aware artificial intelligences capable of recognizing both voice and visual clues.

Indeed, by Kubrick's and Clarke's measure, who worked together to coauthor the film's screenplay, these activities should be so mundane, so ingrained into our daily consumer experiences that they're unworthy of narrative exposition (something notoriously sparse in the film).

It's ironic, then, that many of the consumer brand names used to underscore this point in the film were defunct by the time 2001 actually rolled around. Case in point: In one part of the film, a character makes an orbital videophone call using the Bell telephone system, famously divested in 1984.

Similarly, Pan Am appears not only as a major air carrier but also as a passenger spaceflight company, despite the fact that the real Pan American World Airways shut down in 1991. (An unaffiliated airline has since resumed use of the name.)

In one case, one product became obsolete even before the film's debut. RCA Whirlpool appears as the maker of zero-gravity food systems, despite the fact that the company dropped the RCA name from its appliance products before the film's 1968 release.

However, one significant technology brand name that appeared in several aspects of 2001 is still going strong, though its often professed connections to the HAL 9000 computer's name amount to little more than an eerie coincidence.


What famous technology brand, displayed prominently in 2001: A Space Odyssey, shares an eerily coincidental connection to the HAL 9000 computer's name?

IBM is the technology giant in question, a company often mistakenly credited as the basis for the HAL 9000's three-letter name. In the standard English alphabet, the letters H, A, and L immediately precede the letters I, B, and M, respectively.

The coincidence is so striking that many have often assumed that the HAL initials are a veiled reference to Big Blue. The fact that a number of fake IBM products appear in the film—including several monitors and a spacesuit control—only served to reinforce this assumption.

In actuality, HAL's real-world creator, Arthur C. Clarke, and his instructor in the novel, Dr. Chandra, both profess that the HAL name is shorthand for heuristic algorithm, purportedly the mathematical principle that serves as the basis for HAL 9000's artificial intelligence. Clarke has also gone on record to say that, had he noticed the IBM-HAL connection before the release of the film or novel, he would have named the computer something else.

If there's any actual connection between HAL and IBM that's intentional, it's perhaps the one most cleverly obscured. As embattled astronaut Dave Bowman slowly disconnects the HAL 9000's processors, the computer noticeably regresses in intelligence, ultimately clinging to one of its first "lessons" in human interaction—a song.

That song, "A Bicycle Built for Two," was actually the first song "sung" by any computer—a feat accomplished at Bell Laboratories in 1961 by an IBM 7094 computer. The touch is a subtle nod to computer history, if not IBM itself.

And just to hammer home the point, when Clarke penned the sequel to 2001 in 1982, 2010: Odyssey Two, he didn't name HAL's twin the HAL 9001 or the HAL 9000-B but instead chose SAL 9000. Whether that will put the HAL-IBM issue to rest is a matter of debate—and of great Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Dec. 14 edition of Geek Trivia, "Greatest of the mall," wherein TechRepublic member MGarvis disputes my characterization of Italy as the land of pasta:

"The land of pasta indeed... I think you will find that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China some time before malls!"

While I too have often heard that the Chinese "invented" noodles and that Marco Polo introduced them to Italy, this notion is actually just another urban myth. This Web site does a rather fantastic job of chronicling the simultaneous and independent development of pasta throughout historical cultures, proving that Italy has plenty of claim to the term.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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