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“Did you en-joy the de-mon-stra-tion?”

By (January 1, 2010) No Comment

Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel

By Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
Abrams Image, 2009

In 2005, comedian/novelist Chris Elliott…. OK, yes, I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing. Novelist? (Maybe even: Comedian?) But he wrote a pastiche of period thrillers titled The Shroud of the Thwacker, in which Jack the “Jolly Thwacker” thwacks some young ladies and gets up to hijinks with Teddy Roosevelt while generally running amok in 19th-century New York City. At some point in the novel, Elliott introduces the invention of Archibald Campion, a mechanical man dubbed “Boilerplate” – which, Elliott claims in his book’s introduction, was first brought to his attention by his younger brother, who had stumbled upon what both brothers assumed was an 1800s in-joke described in painstakingly convincing detail on a website, bigredhair.com.

At which point, the proprietor of bigredhair.com, Paul Guinan, made some phone calls.

Boilerplate – and Campion – was his fictional creation. Far from being a 19th-century hoax, the robot and his inventor first appeared in 2000 as part of the Big Red Hair website which Guinan runs with his wife and collaborator Anina Bennett. Guinan had originally composed a counterfeit alternative history of 19th-century America, in which a Zelig-like robot helped shape fin de siècle American culture. What tricked both Elliott and his brother was a meticulous biography of a made-up figure – a biography so convincing that, if you couldn’t believe that that a lifelike robot had been created in the 19th-century, you could at least believe that it was possible for 19th-century imagination to produce such an intriguing hoax. Guinan’s pseudohistory comprised careful documentation in the form of mocked-up photographs and accounts of real battles into which the robot had been carefully inserted.

According to a New York Times article, Elliott, Guinan, and Bennett settled out-of-court, with Guinan and Bennett receiving partial royalties from the sales of the Thwacker novel. But Elliott was not the only dupe: others, including historians of cybernetics and robotics, believed Boilerplate to have been real, or at the very least a plausible bit of turn-of-the-century fiction.
Now, with the recent publication of Guinan and Bennett’s elegantly-inked and highly entertaining graphic novel, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, how many untold masses will fall prey, like the Elliotts and the historians, to Boilerplate and Campion’s inherent charm? Perhaps the real question is: How many high school students would prefer to read Guinan and Bennett’s rewritten account of American history from the Civil War to the First World War?

I know I most certainly would rather have been fed history with such a spoonful of sugar.

For the real allure of Boilerplate is the book’s attention to historical detail and – and this will doubtless seem strange considering its fictitious heroes – its attention to historical accuracy. Guinan and Bennett are straight-faced and unapologetic in their adherence to their conceit. In the book’s acknowledgments, for example, they thank “The exceptional curators at the Campion Foundation [who] allowed unprecedented access to their archives, without which this book could not have been made”; there is also an earnest forward by an invented historian, who laments that “Boilerplate is one of history’s great enigmas, a technological breakthrough that languished in obscurity – until now. Ironically, the robot’s fame in years past was part of the problem. Many researchers have been led astray by apocryphal tales of the automaton, and there’s confusion about whether Boilerplate existed at all. As a result, historians are reluctant to include the robot in official texts.” (Guinan and Bennett also give “a tip of the hat to the talented and gentlemanly Chris Elliott” in the Acknowledgments.)

So meticulous have Guinan and Bennett been that it is disconcerting at times to check facts only to discover that some things are real (there is, in fact, a theory that fragments from the recently-disintegrated Biela Comet contributed to both the Great Chicago and Peshtigo Fires of 1871) and other things are not (there is no such person as Edward Fullerton, inventor of the “first practical hydrogen fuel cell,” which powers Boilerplate; and of course there is no such person as Archibald Campion). Instead, Boilerplate abounds in description, letters to and from people who did exist (Roosevelt, for example, as well as Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla), and, above all, gloriously doctored photographs showing the robot atop the Southern Gate of the Peking Wall, crossing Morrison Street in Portland, Oregon, sparring with boxing legend Jack Johnson, posing with General Pancho Villa and his staff, and marching into battle alongside T. E. Lawrence and an army of Bedouin tribesmen.

Boilerplate with Pancho Villa; from bigredhair.com

One could almost get lost in the illustrations alone – but the book would be a mere novelty of photoshoppery. Instead, Guinan and Bennett have created a piece of fiction which is very much like reading American history through the lens of Archibald Campion and his Mechanical Marvel.

The experience of reading is impossibly enjoyable for the first three chapters, during which we are introduced to Campion and his sister, Lily, a mover and shaker of women’s suffrage and good friends with Ethel Barrymore, Alice Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In 1870, Lily marries the naval officer Hugh W. McKee – who dies during the United States expedition to Korea in 1871 (and there really was a naval officer named Hugh McKee who really was one of the three American casualties of the expedition). McKee’s death is the catalyst for the young Campion to create an entity “for use in resolving the conflicts of nations without the deaths of men,” a phrase which becomes a kind of rallying cry throughout the book and Campion’s stated intention in creating Boilerplate.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 orphans Archibald and Lily; from this point onwards, Campion takes a variety of odd jobs at places like the Chicago Telephone Company, while he hones his own scientific theories and files patents for things such as vavlular conduits (attributed in real life to Tesla) and “polyphase electric systems” (attributed in real life to a variety of people, including Tesla), which make him a millionaire. In 1886, he retires to a secret laboratory where, with help from his friends Tesla and Fullerton, he constructs a mechanical man which he debuts in the thrillingly-described World’s Columbian Expedition of 1893:

Archie [Campion] was granted a space in Machinery Hall, one of the fourteen Great Buildings that housed most of the fair’s 65,000 exhibits. Artfully landscaped canals, lagoons, and causeways connected these classically styled white edifices into an idealized, orderly White City. Electric boats plied the waters, powered by Edward Fullerton’s fuel cells.

Inside Machinery Hall, Archie’s exhibit was dwarfed by endless rows of state-of-the-art mechanical devices and tools, with special attractions such as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the world’s largest conveyor belt, and a cutting-edge power plant that generated electricity for the whole fair. At night the fairgrounds were illuminated by electric lights, thanks to an early alternating-current system developed by Archie’s friend Nikola Tesla. The world had never seen anything like it.

The above quote is representative of Guinan and Bennett’s two-fold approach. First, they take care to contextualize Boilerplate amongst its contemporary mechanical innovations, as well as within a carefully-researched history of culture and society. Boilerplate does, for example, take up the part of women’s suffrage, as well as do much to help publicize and change the appalling working conditions of factory children at the turn of the century. The other part of Guinan and Bennett’s method is more subtle: it involves emphasizing the degree to which so many other things were going on simultaneously that even a “mechanical marvel” like Boilerplate might be overlooked, or “dwarfed” by other inventions. Boilerplate is never inserted into particularly iconic photographs; when it appears next to famous figures from history, the shots seem candid and casual. It is instead usually casually climbing a mountain, ambling down a street, or posing with Campion as though such activities by such a creature were commonplace. So much is done, in fact, to adjust for the fact that Boilerplate didn’t exist that it begins to seem entirely plausible that it did exist.

Boilerplate in Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War

Yet the book does have its faults. Part of the reading difficulty of Boilerplate lies in its page layouts. The authors have a peculiar way of threading their narrative through pages stuffed with sidebars, illustrations, and other distracting features: you’re forced to contend with too much competing information. Ultimately, you learn to pick and choose which text to focus on, and the experience of Boilerplate becomes immersive – though at some harm to the enjoyment of the story.

Consider, for example, the odd temporal jump that occurs in the chapter in which Campion and Boilerplate first help subdue riots during the Pullman strike in 1894, then travel to Antarctica the next year, stop off at Hawaii to meet Lili’uokalani before heading to Africa for a couple of years to explore and lay railroad tracks, then finally, in 1897, wind up hiking along the Klondike. The narrative unexpectedly skips ahead to 1906, when Boilerplate assists in the construction of the Panama Canal before circumnavigating the globe for another two years with the Great White Fleet. It’s not until the next chapter that we learn what occurred in the intervening decade: Boilerplate had become a soldier in several military conflicts. With all these sidebar tidbits and thematic leaps in chronology, Boilerplate begins to feel less like an amusing pseudo-history and more of an exercise in mimicking the bells and whistles of a standard high school textbook.

The middle of the book, in fact, is where the entertainment dims. Guinan and Bennett cobble together repetitive episodes in which Boilerplate and Campion attempt to intervene in various wars. Boilerplate demonstrates that it is of great tactical value to those it helps, but those in command are skeptical of the metal man’s real wisdom and utility:

It would seem [writes Campion during the American-Philippine War] that the military leaders here suffer from a fatal failure of imagination. They do not yet appreciate the intended purpose of my mechanical soldier, despite its recent success in Cuba. Rather than serving in the stead of men on the battlefield, my automaton has been assigned to “sapper” duties – in essence, simple manual labor.

Boilerplate’s raison d’être, is, as we know very well by now, to prevent human deaths on the battlefield. Indeed, great emphasis is placed on the fact that Boilerplate never likely killed a human being during his various campaigns. Campion seems to envision a situation where nations would wage war by proxy – though in an apocryphal letter to Lily, Ida Wells-Barnett argues that Campion’s “ill-conceived experiment is no better than slavery. If a mechanical man can walk and talk, is he not a man?”

This admittedly oft-asked question is the absent core of the book, and Guinan and Bennett’s failure to pose it more than once, or to examine Boilerplate as a sort of individual, is one of the more disappointing aspects of the work. At the World’s Fair when Boilerplate is first introduced to the public, we get a few first-hand accounts of those who have met what is at that point still called Professor Campion’s Mechanical Marvel:

I tell you what [writes one woman to another], that contraption walked and talked all on its own! It lifted up two grown men over its head as if they was feathers. It saluted and marched about and aimed a rifle like a real soldier. They showed how it couldn’t be hurt. At the end it looked square at me, bowed just as proper as you please, and said “Good day ma-dam. Did you en-joy the de-mon-stra-tion?” “I surely did” says I “but I don’t know why I’m telling that to a machine!” To which it says “Be-cause I asked.”

Alas, this is the most detail we are allowed of Boilerplate’s character. There is no tension (well, extremely little) in the book between considering Boilerplate as something like a human and considering Boilerplate as a thing. Indeed, despite the fact that a variety of “sources” as well as the narrative refer to Boilerplate consistently as a “mechanical man,” the pronoun used is nearly always “it” rather than “he,” save once or twice when Campion makes a slip. It is an important part of technology, an enigmatic and overlooked contributor to history, it is an entity intended to replace humans on the battlefield – but only when it is lost following some shelling in WWI does Boilerplate become remotely (and briefly) “human”:

Archie Campion was devastated by the loss of his robot. As a child, he had weathered the deaths of his parents and brother-in-law by single-mindedly devoting himself to inventing an indestructible man. Without realizing it, he created a family member that could never die – and now was gone forever. He was just as deeply affected by the long-delayed realization that he would never be able to prevent the deaths of men in the conflict of nations.

The end of the book somewhat redeems the repetition and lack of heart that characterize earlier chapters by examining the robot in a cultural context (and it is only at the start of the appendix that we are reminded of the fact that the term “robot” was coined in 1920 by the Czechoslovakian Josef Capek to mean a mechanical automaton). We see Boilerplate reading scripts on the set of a since-lost silent film; Jack London composing a series of Boilerplate tales set on frontier America; and numerous modern artistic renderings of the robot. Of greatest interest are, I think, the dime novels penned by “Noname,” which depict Boilerplate and “Campion, Jr.” – we are helpfully informed that creating “junior” versions of famous inventors was a way to draw in younger readers – in an increasingly improbable series of science-fiction scenarios. Campion eventually puts an end to the series:

To my eventual chagrin [he writes to his sister], at the outset I brushed aside pangs of trepidation regarding the publishing arrangement…. Of course I understood that [the publisher] cares not a whit for scientific exploration or cultural advancement…and that his dreadful writers would produce lurid tales in which my mechanical man was in some fashion mischaracterized. Yet still I believed that these popular fictions could be employed to educate the general public as to the utility of an artificial soldier.

This sort of educating intent is not often found amongst the ephemera of Guinan and Bennett’s light-hearted book. Nevertheless, Boilerplate ranks third in Amazon.com’s top ten “entertainment” books of 2009, behind a volume on basketball by Bill Simmons and another on poker by James McManus – and ahead of books about Robert Altman and by Werner Herzog. All of these are real people and real things, but it is for their ability to make us (however momentarily) disregard reality that we think of them as “entertainment.” That Boilerplate, the book and the entity, fall into top of the same category signifies, perhaps, that a fictive illusion of reality is itself more entertaining than real attempts to deploy illusion or fiction. Guinan and Bennett toy, often wonderfully, with our rather dim and impressionable notions of history – when presidents wore pince-nez, Henry Ford sailed to Europe to try to stop a World War, and, for all we know, tin-plated robots roamed the earth like superheroes.

Lianne Habinek is an Assistant Professor of English at Bard College and a frequent Open Letters Monthly contributor.