Hamilton and the Watch from 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey Hamilton digital watch
Image credit: Matthew J. Cotter / CC BY-SA 2.0

Stanley Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist. As a director, he knew precisely what he wanted and went to extreme lengths to get it. Like the time he made Shelly Duval and Jack Nicholson do a record-breaking 127 takes for the baseball bat scene from The Shining. Or when, as recounted by John Ronson, he had his nephew take hundreds of photographs of ‘just about every doorway in London’ in search of the perfect entranceway for use in Eyes Wide Shut. (In the end, Kubrick built his own, plus a whole city block to go with it, at Pinewood Studios. The door in question only appeared on screen for a few seconds).

So Kubrick’s decision to get the watchmaker Hamilton to make the timepieces for his 1968 opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, would have been a significant — if somewhat daunting — endorsement of the brand. During the production of the film, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (who penned the novel the film was based on and co-wrote the screenplay) visited the Hamilton HQ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They were in search of watches from the future, and, it turned out, they had come to the right place.

While collaborating with Kubrick would no doubt have been an exciting prospect, this was far from Hamilton’s first onscreen outing. The company’s relationship with the silver screen dated at least as far back as the 1932 Marlene Dietrich-starring thriller Shanghai Express, which features a Flintridge wristwatch. Before Kubric came knocking, Hamiltons had also appeared in such films as the Oscar-nominated but now less-known The Frogmen (1951), which included the company’s US Navy ‘Frogman’ diving model, as well as the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii (1961) in which the star sports an iconic triangular-faced Ventura. That same watch — thereafter dubbed ‘the Elvis watch’ — has proven a particular film favourite, also appearing in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and in every instalment of Men in Black series. All told, Hamilton reckons their watches have had over 500 on-screen outings, appearing in everything from period dramas like Mad Men to action blockbusters from the Die Hard franchise.

2001: A Space Odyssey Hamilton digital watch exhibition
The digital wristwatch Hamilton made for 2001: A Space Odyssey
Image credit: Resistan on Needpix.com

For 2001 Kubrick wanted both a wristwatch and a clock. Hamilton agreed and duly produced two clocks and a series of wristwatch prototypes, all sporting their company logo. The final watch choice can be seen on the wrists of the astronauts in the film, but the clock, which had a spacey oval face containing five digital display windows (here’s what it looked like), sadly didn’t make the final edit. 

No matter. The tech Hamilton developed for the film would stand them in good stead and the digital clock that had been relegated to the cutting room floor came in particularly handy. Its design had a direct influence on the development of a smash hit timepiece Hamilton brought to market just a few years later. It was called the Pulsar Time Computer, it featured a groundbreaking LED display, and it earned the distinction of being the world’s first digital watch.

Vintage Pulsar Time Computer digital LED watch ad
An add for the world’s first digital watch, the Pulsar Time Computer
Image credit: Joe Haupt / CC BY-SA 2.0

There is also an obvious advantage to having a watch you made appear in one of the most famous films of all time, especially if you’re a brand that has long cultivated a relationship with Holywood. In the wake of 2001, science fiction has been particularly fertile ground for Hamilton. Their watches have since featured in a murderers’ row of sci-fi flicks: The Martian, Independence Day, the aforementioned Marvel outing and M.I.B movies, as well as the 2014 Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar (which I’ve written about elsewhere).

And while Hamilton wasn’t able to produce a commercially viable version of the prop watch from 2001, they did bring out something both visually and nominally distinct enough to avoid potential copyright infringement in the form of the ‘Odyssee 2001’, which you can have a look at here. It came out in a limited run of 2001 units. It also couldn’t open a pod bay door or anything, though in our own futuristic world of smartwatches, that might just feel like a welcome throwback.