From the Newspad to a multi-channel media – what 2001: A Space Odyssey got right about our future

Famously, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 features a handful of designs and concepts which seem to have predicted future tech, or had some influence on its evolution. New book The 2001 File includes many of the ideas that were dreamed up by the film’s production designers in the late-1960s – some of which, eventually, came true.

In The 2001 File, Christopher Frayling examines the role of ex-NASA illustrator and designer Harry Lange on Kubrick’s science-fiction epic. Lange’s vision would mark the film – his designs for shuttles, moon-bases, the insides and outsides of spaceships was based on his real knowledge of flight and NASA technology. Many of the smaller props and devices in the film were the result of lengthy collaborations with several of the leading tech manufacturers of the day – some 65 companies are credited with involvement, Frayling writes.

Clearly, even in 2016, we are nowhere near the levels of space exploration that Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke envisaged in their vision of 2001. But there are a few ideas in the film which have made it into our future having perhaps inspired contemporary designers and manufacturers.

Liquid space food
At the time 2001 came out, in 1968, there had been manned space missions but it would be a year later before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a journey that would require eight days’ worth of food. For his film, Kubrick’s team worked with Seabrook Farms to create this rather utilitarian ‘liquipak’ meal selection as an on-board offering from Pan Am (note the straws sticking out).

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British Film Institute. Image at top of post: photo by John Jay/mptvimages.com

Video calls
Also prescient was this attaché case computer, featuring a Skype-like ‘vision screen’ and ‘electronic memo pad’. Although the design was never used in the final film, it was developed in some detail with help from engineering company Honeywell. Indicative of the idea that any vision of the future inevitably contains features of the present, the case also includes an analogue telephone handset.

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In the film, Floyd also makes a ‘video call’ home from the Space Station and speaks to his daughter ahead of her birthday party (using Bell technology and for $1.70). In a scene that was eventually cut, Floyd even buys her a pet using the videophone (“A bushbaby? We’ll have to see about that,” he says in the sequence kept in).

Space-age fashions
Then there’s the rather sleek timepiece that was created for the film by Hamilton Watch. While analogue in its design (this is not a touch-screen device), its straight sides and display along the bottom edge predates the look of the Apple Watch by some 47 years.

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The Newspad tablet
Which leads us nicely into one of the products which, in 1968, Kubrick and his assembled team got pretty much spot on – albeit a few years premature. The ‘Newspad’ (shown at top of post) was designed by Eliot Noyes and Associates, IBM’s industrial designers, and is often considered a precursor to today’s tablet devices. Usually referred to as ‘Kubrick’s Newspad’, more correctly, Frayling writes, “it should be attributed to Eliot Noyes and Harry Lange, based on an idea by Arthur C Clarke”.

In this sequence from the film, Bowman watches a ‘BBC 12’ broadcast of ‘The World Tonight’ that includes an interview with the two astronauts aboard the Discovery – perhaps an ambitious prediction of the amount of broadcast services from the BBC, but certainly indicative of the multi-channel media world of today.

A wider shot shows HAL and Poole interviewed later on in the broadcast, with both astronauts watching Newspads. IBM’s device offers full-screen video playback and has a series of control buttons along the bottom edge.

It goes without saying that as the real life advances in space exploration have lagged way behind the extraordinary vision of Clarke and Kubrick, there are plenty of things that didn’t happen in 2001, let alone 2016. Leaving spaceflight aside, Kubrick actually got it quite wrong when it came to the computers in the film, for example – but perhaps for good reason. While Lange was aware that miniaturisation would be at the forefront of technology’s evolution, the director knew that this would not translate well on screen. So while HAL’s mainframe is an entire room (a decidedly old-fashioned idea of a computer station), it does offer the potential for a brilliant dramatic climax.

During production, Frayling writes, art director Tony Masters requested that his team would require “commercial advice on an assortment of props: an attaché case for Floyd, some wristwatches, pens and pencils; some shop windows and posters for the Space Stations – plus ‘the medical and scientific equipment that might conceivably be used in the Centrifuge’ and ‘a special food box with sucking tubes as we discussed’. Also, ‘some very modern and well-designed office equipment and conference room leather chairs, table etc.’”

All this, including advice from Hewlett Packard, Bausch and Lomb on scientific instruments through to posters designed in-house by Pan Am, helped to create a conceivable reality for 2001. This set the film apart from the science-fiction of the time and also set the standard for the speculative work that continues to be made today.

The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film by Christopher Frayling is published by Real Art Press (£45). All images shown here are taken from the book. See reelartpress.com

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