In 1893, Archibald Campion believed he created an invention that would “prevent the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations”: the Campion Mechanical Marvel, later to be known as Boilerplate the Victorian-Age robot. Constructed with the aid of close friends and inventors Edward Fullerton and Nikola Tesla, Boilerplate was unveiled during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that summer and fought in several major combat missions between the Spanish-American War in 1898 until its disappearance in 1918 on the battlefront of World War I.
Of course, Boilerplate never really existed except in Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, published by Abrams Books last month. Based on an extensive website that had created and expanded upon the Boilerplate character since 2000, Boilerplate the book is an illustrated history of this Victorian curiosity, who fought in several wars, traveled from China to Saudi Arabia to the brink of the South Pole, and even had his own series of dime novels and silent movies.
My general reaction: the book was a joy to read. It’s chock full of interesting historical details and many ingenuous illustrations, many of them cleverly manipulated to look like authentic images of the robot alongside familiar historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia.
The book trailer for Boilerplate
What is just as interesting as these photos is the way Guinan and Bennett used Boilerplate’s story to highlight marginalized histories, emphasize the pursuit of social justice issues during that time period, and dispassionately narrate the full consequences of American expansionism.
For instance, Boilerplate fought for many a cause, but Campion and his robot sympathized with the underdog more often. Boilerplate stood beside Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, yet it fought most of its military battles alongside the all-black Buffalo Soldiers. In fact, notables of color play prominent roles in Boilerplate’s story. Ida B. Wells, a black suffragette and African-American activist, for example, becomes the best friend of Lily Campion, Archibald’s sister, and together they work on various social justice issues. Boilerplate safeguards Lili’uokalani, the last Queen of Hawaii, while being monitored by American forces during the annexation of Hawaii, and it warns Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa when he is on the run from the American cavalry.
The fact that Boilerplate’s own history became “lost” to the mainstream public parallels those ignored voices in history.
Campion himself becomes very sensitive toward Boilerplate’s involvement in battles against the oppressed. The greatest regret he had was involving his robot in a skirmish during the Pullman train strike when the U.S. Army fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters; Boilerplate itself rescued a female worker during the conflict. Campion even shuts down the dime novel series starring his creation when an issue showed it fighting against an aboriginal tribe.
Indeed, over the course of the book, with each bloody conflict the US becomes involved in, Campion eventually learns the sad lesson that his invention, instead of saving lives, could easily lend itself to destroying them.
Boilerplate’s established “mysterious disappearance” during World War I then becomes a symbolic gesture about devastating results of technological progress. Moreover, the question of Boilerplate’s self-awareness and intelligence is left up to the reader’s imagination, though the book hints several times that it is more man than machine in its actions. This adds a speculative layer of sadness to the machine’s disappearance. Perhaps it was not destroyed or captured by the enemy, but, like the remorseful Frankenstein’s monster, self-exiled itself for the benefit of mankind.
Thus, between the lines of the book’s textbook format and “historical verisimilitude” lies a message about justice and humanity. This book serves more than pulp entertainment but food for thought too. Like the rumored sentience that lurked behind the electrical eyes of Campion’s Mechanical Marvel, within its pages, Boilerplate is an intellectual re-imagining driven by real heart.