Monolith (Space Odyssey)

Monolith (Space Odyssey)
Chaos Computer Club used a model of the 2001 monolith at the Hackers at Large camp site

Monoliths are fictional advanced machines built by an unseen extraterrestrial species that appear in Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series of novels and films. During the series, three monoliths are discovered in the solar system by humans and it is revealed that thousands if not more were created throughout the solar system, although none are seen. The subsequent response of the characters to their discovery drives the plot of the series. It also influences the fictional history of the series, particularly by encouraging humankind to progress with technological development and space travel.

The first monolith appears in the beginning of the story, set in prehistoric times. It is discovered by a group of hominids, and somehow triggers a considerable shift in evolution, starting with the ability to use tools.


The nomenclature TMA

The first monolith to be discovered in the modern age was unearthed on the Moon near Tycho Crater after it emitted a powerful magnetic field that was detected and investigated. It was called the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1 ("TMA-1") before the monolith was discovered. After this is discovered to be an alien artifact, its name becomes the "Tycho Monolith Anomaly 1" (still TMA-1). Soon afterward, a second, larger monolith was discovered orbiting Jupiter; it was dubbed "TMA-2". A few centuries in the future, a third monolith is discovered that is buried on Earth in rocks that were clearly millions of years old, and it is surrounded by primitive human artifacts. This one is retroactively named "TMA-0" (as opposed to "TMA-3") because it had been the first monolith to be discovered by men-apes during prehistoric times.

The term "Tycho Magnetic Anomaly" is something of a misnomer when referring to "TMA-0" and "TMA-2", since neither of these is found on the Moon (let alone in Tycho Crater) and neither one of them emits any significant magnetic field, as described in the novel 2010: Odyssey Two. In the novel, the Russian crewmen of the spaceship Alexei Leonov refer to the TMA-2 as "Zagadka" (from the Russian word for "enigma", "mystery", or "riddle").


The extraterrestrial species that built the monoliths is never described in much detail, but some knowledge of its existence is given to Dave Bowman after he is transported by the stargate to the "cosmic zoo", as detailed in the novels 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two. The existence of this species is only hypothesized by the rest of humanity, but it is obvious because the monolith was immediately identified as an artifact of non-human origin.

The extraterrestrial species that built the monoliths developed intergalactic travel millions or perhaps billions of years before the present time. In the novels, Clarke refers to them as the "Firstborn" (not to be confused with the identically-named race in Arthur C. Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey Series) since they were quite possibly the first sentient species to possess a significant capability of interstellar travel. Members of this species had explored the Solar System in the search of knowledge, and especially knowledge about other intelligent species.

While these early explorers discovered that life was quite common, they observed that intelligent life was often stunted in its development, or else died out prematurely. Hence, they set about fostering it. The "Firstborn" were in many ways physically different from human beings, though from another point-of-view they were fundamentally the same: they were creatures made of "flesh and blood", and hence like human beings they were mortal.

However, the evolutionary development projects they began would by their nature require very long time-spans to complete, far longer than the lifetimes of their creators. Therefore, the aliens created increasingly complex automated machines to oversee and carry out their projects over the eons. When they encountered a living world that had features in favor of the evolution of intelligent life, they left behind the monoliths as remote observers that were also capable of taking a variety of actions according to the wishes of their creators. The monoliths are possibly the last remaining (and ultimate) technology that they ever devised. One such planet, encountered when it was still quite young, was the Earth. They also observed Jupiter and its watery moon, Europa. The decaying ecology of Mars was also visited, but passed over in favor of more fruitful locations like Earth. The aliens left behind three monoliths to observe and enact their plan to foster humans to pursue technology and space travel.

As described in Clarke's novel, the Firstborn discovered later how to transfer their consciousness onto computers, and thus they became thinking machines. In the end, they surpassed even this achievement, and were able to transfer entirely from physical to non-corporeal forms — omniscient, immortal, and capable of travelling at great speeds. The Firstborn had abandoned physical form, but their creations, the monoliths, remained, and these continued to carry out their original assignments.

Appearance and capabilities

All the monoliths are black, extremely flat, non-reflective rectangular solids whose dimensions are in the precise ratio of 1:4:9 (the squares of the first three integers). These dimensions are the main source of debate regarding the monoliths' simple external design. It is suggested in the novel 2001 that this number series does not stop at three dimensions.[1]

The monoliths are observed in several different sizes - TMA-0 and TMA-1 are both about 11 feet long and TMA-2 is two kilometers long on its longest axis, whereas the monolith that appears on Europa is considerably larger. They may be able to assume any size, because in 2010: Odyssey Two, the Star Child, created from Dave Bowman, cryptically notes that the monolith is actually one size - "as large as necessary".

These monoliths appear to be extremely long lived and reliable machines, essentially an incredibly advanced form of multifunction robot, being able to survive for millions of years buried in the ground or resisting meteorite impacts and radiation in space, with no apparent damage. The two monoliths recovered and examined by humans reveal themselves to be virtually indestructible and impenetrable, resisting all attempts to analyze their composition or internal structure right up to the end of the series. It is suggested by Dr. Heywood Floyd that they possess some sort of force field, an impression he gets from touching it and much later accepted as most probable because the monoliths resist destructive testing beyond the theoretical limits of material strength. However, they are not completely indestructible - the TMA-4 has suffered from damage caused by a giant meteorite of solid diamond that collides with Europa in 2061: Odyssey Three. In the final book, 3001: The Final Odyssey, all three monoliths known to humankind are deactivated by infecting them with a powerful computer virus.

While it is unclear what the composition of the monoliths is, they clearly have mass, which is about the only observation that can be made. In the novel 2010, the crewmen of the Alexi Leonov measure the mass of TMA-2 and they find that it has a density slightly higher than that of air (presumably at a standard temperature and pressure). The masses of TMA-0 and TMA-1 are never revealed.

Among the more dramatic abilities of the monoliths are self-teleportation and self-replication.

In 2001, TMA-2 opens up a stargate that enables Dave Bowman to travel across the Galaxy at speeds that are faster-than-light and with as much acceleration as he wishes. In 2010 and again in 3001, the TMA-2 is observed to teleport itself (disappear and reappear elsewhere).

TMA-2 is observed to self-replicate by a form of symmetrical binary fission and grow exponentially to thousands or millions of units in just a matter of days. In 2010, the many units act to increase the density of the planet Jupiter until stellar ignition is achieved, converting it into a miniature star. In 3001, millions of copies of TMA-2 are observed to assemble themselves into two megastructure disks that attempt to block the sun from Earth and its human colonies in the Jovian system in an attempt to cause the extinction of humanity.

The monoliths are clearly described in the novels as being controlled by some sort of computer. In 2061, the non-corporeal entities of Bowman, HAL, and Dr. Heywood Floyd, are essentially downloaded and stored as programs in TMA-2, which observes the Europans and shields them from human interference.

The TMA-1 and TMA-2 are observed to produce powerful, directional radio transmissions. TMA-2 is observed, in the 2100s, to direct a radio transmission toward a star system about 450 light years away. Only TMA-1 ever demonstrates the ability to generate a strong magnetic field around itself.

It also appears any kind of transmission into the Monoliths produces a high-pitched squeal. This only seems to affect humans, and possibly only in the presence of open radio transceivers, such as those built into a spacesuit.

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1 (also known as TMA-1) refers to the apparent magnetic irregularity found at the Tycho crater on the Moon's surface by American astronauts. The anomaly is caused by a monolith buried 40 feet under the lunar surface; when exposed, it was found to be a black cuboid whose sides measured in the precise ratio 1:4:9 (1²:2²:3²). In the book it is indicated that this ratio extends past the three spatial dimensions with which we are familiar.

Not long after the monolith is exposed to sunlight after excavation, it emits an extremely powerful burst of radio-frequency energy outward through the Solar System, and the magnetic anomaly surrounding it simultaneously disappears.

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-2

An identical (except in size) object was found later, orbiting Jupiter (on a moon of Saturn in the book, although this was changed to Jupiter in the sequel book, 2010: Odyssey Two). This object was dubbed "TMA-2", a term that the book calls "doubly inappropriate": it had no magnetic field and was millions of miles from Tycho (TMA-2 was often referred to as "Big Brother" due to David Bowman's comments on its immense size). In 3001: The Final Odyssey, HAL and Bowman destroy TMA-2 with a computer virus after it is learned that its superiors are sending an order to destroy humanity.

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-0

In the year 2513, the first Monolith to be encountered by humankind's prehistoric evolutionary predecessors was found in Olduvai Gorge, Africa buried in ancient rock, and was retroactively dubbed "TMA-0".

Name sake

"Monolith" was used by Grundig (German electronics manufacturer) to name a series of its high fidelity loudspeakers[2]. The largest model in the series, Grundig Monolith 190 (1979-1983), weighted 83 kg and its proportions (including a height of approximately 2 m) were reminiscent of extraterrestrial monoliths.

In the late 1980s, Apple Inc. bought a Cray supercomputer to model experimental processor designs. After the machine was installed and set up, a company-wide contest was held to choose a name for the machine: the winning suggestion was TMA-1.[citation needed]

Danish headphone manufacturer Aiaiai have recently released a model named the TMA-1 due to the matte black finish and design of the headphones. They have attributed the naming of this model to the monolith from 2001.

Seattle Monolith

On New Year's Day 2001, the Seattle Monolith, a replica of the Monolith made out of welded steel appeared on a hill in Seattle's Magnuson Park, apparently having been placed there during the night before. It disappeared overnight three days later, and was presumed to be a reference to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.[3]

In popular culture

  • Tributes to Monoliths have appeared in several video games. In SimEarth and Spore, Monoliths are used to encourage the evolution of species.[4][5]
  • In the Game EVE Online several Monoliths appear through out the game. They appear to have no use other than homage.
  • Monoliths appear in various times and places throughout the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book by Jack Kirby, from Marvel Comics. They also appear in the (related by way of Machine Man) Earth X comic book series.
  • The "monolith" cartoon series from The Electric Company used white versions of the monolith, that crumbled apart to expose letter clusters and dipthongs, subsequently pronounced by a deistic voice (e.g. "oo", "ee", "ow", "all", "alk", et. al.).
  • The band Rosetta has recorded an instrumental song titled TMA-1. Also, on the album The Galilean Satellites, the monolith is referred to several times in the lyrics.
  • The Monolith, an enemy faction featured in the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, that worship an object that is supposedly from outer space. It is claimed to hold the power to grant wishes
  • The Monolith scene at the start of 2001 is also featured in a Simpsons episode with primitive man represented by Homer Simpson.


  1. ^ Clarke A (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey, Signet. "How obvious—how necessary—was that mathematical ratio of its sides, the quadratic sequence 1:4:9! And how naive to have imagined that the series ended at this point, in only three dimensions!"
  2. ^ "Grundig Monolith 190". Retrieved 2011-10-07. 
  3. ^ "Seattle's mystery monolith disappears". BBC News. BBC. 4 January 2001. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  4. ^ Edge staff (September 6, 2008). "Spore and the Creativity of Science". Edge. Retrieved 2009-10-17. 
  5. ^ Benjamin Svetkey (Jan 13, 1995). "Videogame Review: SimEarth". Entertainment Weekly.,,20184081,00.html. Retrieved 2009-10-17. 

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