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The Debunker: Was the Name of "HAL" in 2001 a Secret Salute to IBM?

by Ken Jennings

January 1, 2017 isn't just New Year's Day… it's also the Internet's 34rd birthday. On January 1, 1983, all the computer systems on the ARPANET, created by the Department of Defense in 1969, were required to switch over to the TCP/IP network protocol that it still uses today, giving birth to the Internet as we know it. But how well do we know it? Onetime computer programmer (and Jeopardy! computer victim) Ken Jennings is here to do a complete systems update on all the Digital Age spam in your mental inbox.

The Debunker: Was the Name of "HAL" in 2001 a Secret Salute to IBM?

Shortly after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, author Martin Gardner used one of his "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American to publicize an ingenious theory discovered by one Mr. John Roycroft of London. Writing to IBM in Britain magazine, Roycroft noted that if you took "HAL," the name of the film's psychotic computer, and advanced each letter one step forward in the alphabet, you'd get "IBM." IBM had advised the makers of 2001 on technical accuracy, and its logo appears twice in the film, once in the cockpit of the Pan Am space-plane, and again on the wrist panel of the space suits aboard the Discovery. Ever since Martin Gardner put the word out, it's been a widespread fan theory that HAL 9000 was so named to secretly indict IBM in the actions of the evil, murderous supercomputer.


There's one problem with this theory: the filmmakers flatly denied it for decades, long after there would be any harm in admitting the Easter egg. Gardner's friend Arthur C. Clarke wrote to Scientific American the very next month to debunk Roycroft's "discovery." In 2010: Odyssey Two, he did so "in-universe" as well, having HAL's creator Dr. Chandra call the HAL-IBM theory "utter nonsense." HAL derives from the words "heuristic" and "algorithmic," Clarke insisted, and seemed concerned that his colleagues at IBM not believe the hype. "We were quite embarrassed by this, and would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence," he wrote in The Lost Worlds of 2001.

According to Clarke, Kubrick was solely responsible for naming HAL. (The computer was named Athena and had a female voice in Clarke's early outlines.) Diehard Kubrick fans, the kind who think he faked the moon landing for NASA and believe The Shining is about the Holocaust, love the idea of the hidden IBM nod, but the facts are against it. First, we now have memos from Kubrick to IBM that are solicitous to a fault in an attempt to avoid offending IBM with the movie's anti-computer plot. If you were bending over backward to make sure your advisors didn't get in trouble with their bosses, would you also plant secret propaganda against IBM in the film? Second, most of the anti-IBM "clues" that conspiracy theorists see in the film are demonstrably bogus. (No, the IBM logo is not projected on Dave Bowman's face as he unplugs HAL.) And finally, Kubrick also denied the HAL-IBM theory to interviewers, saying that "It would have taken a cryptographer to notice that."

He has a point. Once you've been shown the HAL-IBM thing, it's sure a crazy coincidence. But it seems like an unlikely bit of wordplay to dream up from scratch. Have you ever noticed that the word STAR can be likewise shifted to the word TUBS, or that the same goes for ADDER and BEEFS? Of course you haven't, it's just a weird vagary of language that there are hundreds of combinations like that. Can you prove that Kubrick was a secret wordplay nut planting hidden messages in his movies? "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave."

Quick Quiz: What real-life evil IBM supercomputer defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.