The Lost History of “Boilerplate”

boiler 1893greyBoilerplate was a mechanical man developed by Professor Archibald Campion during the 1880s and unveiled at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Built in a small Chicago laboratory, Boilerplate was a prototype soldier built for “preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations”. Although it was the only such prototype, Boilerplate was eventually able to exercise its proposed function in several combat actions.

Boilerplate embarked on a series of expeditions to demonstrate its abilities, the most ambitious being a voyage to Antarctica. Boilerplate is one of history’s great ironies, a technological milestone that remains largely unknown.

… After the Challenger expedition of 1872-76 proved Antarctica was a continent, there were no journeys to the South Pole for almost two decades. In 1894, after the closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition (where Boilerplate was unveiled), Professor Archibald Campion embarked on a field demonstration of his creation. The professor’s plan was to take the mechanical man to Antarctica to test its abilities in extreme environments. [Source]

According to the website quoted above, Campion and his mechanical man joined an Antarctic expedition sailing to the icy region in an iron-hulled ship, the Euterpe. The ship became ice-bound for five months soon after nearing the Ross Ice Shelf and was unable to continue. Campion’s Boilerplate was used to help free the ship.

boiler antarctic

Boilerplate was evidently next tested out four years later.

When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Archie Campion saw an opportunity for a practical demonstration of his creation’s combat capabilities. Aware of Theodore Roosevelt’s fascination with the latest technology, Campion wired him to request that Boilerplate be included in Teddy’s volunteer unit. The offer was accepted, and in late June, Campion and Boilerplate journeyed from Chicago to Tampa by rail.

At Port Tampa, American ships were forming up for the transport of troops to Cuba, to engage the occupying Spanish army. Campion briefed Roosevelt on Boilerplate’s operation, then remained behind as the fleet steamed southeast. The Spanish-American War was under way. [ibid]

boiler rough

After arrival in Cuba, Boilerplate is reported to have been attached to the all-black 9th Cavalry unit, the “Buffalo Soldiers,” which actually forged up San Juan Hill ahead of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

boiler 10th cavalry san juan

… Roosevelt acknowledges Boilerplate’s contribution and even admits that the first troops up the hill were those of the all-black 9th Cavalry under captains Taylor and McBlain. The national media, however, gave the spotlight to the Rough Riders. A nation that had been starving for wartime glory, and now had stepped up to take its place on the world stage, could hardly admit to anything other than what author M. Demolins declared as Superiorite des Anglo-Saxons. If the heroics of the Buffalo Soldiers could be ignored, then of course so could the acts of what was considered a soulless automaton.

Campion’s automaton is said to have gotten at least some recognition among writers of the time:

Boilerplate’s media profile was probably highest during the Spanish-American War. Stephen Crane mentions him in one dispatch, Richard Harding Davis in two others, and (as quoted above) Theodore Roosevelt briefly writes about the “mechanical mule” in his book, The Rough Riders. All such accounts are dismissive of the robot’s potential and personality. According to writers like Crane, the great human qualities–honor, valor, and sacrifice–were characteristics Boilerplate could never hope to possess.

This can perhaps be attributed to the dawn of automation in the Victorian era, when machines were beginning to supplant people in various occupations. To contemporary writers, Boilerplate may have represented a threat to the human spirit.

In 1903, Campion and Boilerplate the automaton attended the 40th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Shown here is a hand-colored souvenir postcard of the mechanical man “shaking hands” with Robert Stewart, whose father Harold served in the Union cavalry under General Buford.

boier 1903 40 ann gettys

By 1904, Campion and Boilerplate had made their way to Japan.

boiler russo2

On February 8, 1904, Archibald Campion and Boilerplate were in Port Arthur, Manchuria when it was attacked by the Japanese. Ironically, less than six months earlier, the professor and his creation were in Japan as part of an American delegation of inventors. Japan felt that it had been backed into a geopolitical corner by the expansionist Russians.

Even Western powers were concerned about the Czar’s aggressive foreign policies in the Far East. Japan believed a preemptive strike at Russia’s outlying territorial possessions in Manchuria was its only recourse.  … Campion and Boilerplate were attached to the American military observers, who remained in the city until the Russians surrendered it four months later.

It’s not clear what Campion and his automaton did for the next twelve years, but in 1916 Boilerplate was reported to have been involved in attempts by the US military to stop the ravages of the Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa.  At one point the mechanical man was actually captured by Villa’s forces, and was included in the photo of Villa and his men shown below. It was later released and returned to the US.

boiler pancho

Two years later, in 1918, after the US had entered WW1 in Europe, Boilerplate was involved in its final mission, in France.

October 5, the “Lost Battalion,” as it was being called by the press, was without food or water. The next day, Pershing had Boilerplate loaded with as much supplies as it could carry. Its mission was to break through the German lines, pinpoint the exact location of the American troops, and deliver the supplies. The metal man returned after its successful mission, then, on October 7, participated in an assault that relieved the Lost Battalion.

boiler ww1During that action, Boilerplate vanished without a trace.

…Many have speculated about Boilerplate’s fate. Here’s one theory

“Certain secret documents have given me clues about the later history of Boilerplate, beginning with his mysterious disappearance in WWI. It seems clear he was spirited off by German scientists who took him apart and studied his secrets. As proof, just look at the advanced state of their industries only 20 years later. Surely a nation that was beaten and disarmed in 1918 couldn’t have built the first guided rockets and jet airplanes without a boost. And where did that boost come from? Boilerplate Technology.”

I’m kind of hoping by now that, even if you began reading this as a “serious piece of history,” you have come to realize that this is an elaborate piece of historical fiction! If not, don’t be embarrassed…the author of the website where the info comes from has noted that something like a third of the site visitors come away convinced it is all an actual historical account.

Boilerplate is a fictional robot which would have existed in the Victorian era and early 20th century. It was created in 2000 by Portland, Oregon USA artist Paul Guinan.

boilerplate guinanOriginally intended for comics, the character became known via a faux-historical website created by Guinan, and has since appeared in other media.

…The Boilerplate site details the history of a remarkable robot built in the late 19th century, and features photoshopped “archival images” in which Boilerplate (actually a 12-inch articulated model) is seen interacting with historical figures, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Pancho Villa. Becoming aware that some visitors to the site were taken in by its contents, making it an unintentional hoax, Guinan resolved to see how authentic he could make the character seem, working to ensure the descriptions of non-fictional events were accurate. He explained his motivation in a 2002 interview:

“Certainly I felt happy about having achieved my goal,” he said. “I put this thing across as trying to be real, and people bought into it. So, that’s a success! But, as an amateur historian, I feel a responsibility to get the story right. So I felt bad about some of these people being hoaxed. It was a mixed bag.”

“But,” he revealed, “I thought, if I was getting this reaction and I wasn’t really trying, then what would happen if I really tried?”

Guinan estimated that roughly a third of the site’s visitors treated its faux history as real. [Wiki]

In other words, Boilerplate is the “Forrest Gump” of the robot world! Just like the movie magic that put Forrest “in the picture” at pivotal moments in history since the 1950s…

boiler gump…Boilerplate is also a fictional character showing up in similar pivotal moments in earlier history (via the magic of “photoshopping,”) such as sparring with Jack Johnson, heavyweight champ of 1908-1915, and rambling along with Teddy Roosevelt.

boiler jack johnson

boiler teddyThe website’s author has done an amazing job of fooling the eye… and the mind…if you let down your skeptical guard. Such as with this very effective “movie poster” that looks just like the ones made for silent movies in the earliest years of motion pictures.

boiler posterIn the process, Guinan’s creation has become wildly popular.

So incredible is this retro-robotic invention that he is arguably giving the beloved Robbie the Robot, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, a run for its money as the most exotic metal-made character since L. Frank Baum’s Tin Man.- The Atlantic

Boilerplate is a fictional creation that is part of a style of science fiction that has become extremely popular in recent years termed “Steampunk.”

boiler steam[Steampunk, in art, literature, television shows, and movies] typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.

Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne… Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.   [Wiki]

Author/artist Guinan created the Boilerplate character and his inventor, Campion, for use in a proposed comic book series. Instead, he first ended up creating the elaborate historical fiction website. In 2009 he and his wife Anina Bennett coauthored Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel. It is a coffee table book, available in bookstores and online on and other bookseller sites, that covers Boilerplate’s history and subsequent impact on popular culture.

boiler bookSince then Boilerplate and Guinan have branched out into many venues, including comic books, personal appearances at Steampunk conventions, and a possible upcoming movie—director JJ Abrams (of the most recent Star Trek movie and much more) has picked up the option on using the characters and the novel, and as of late 2011 entertainment news sites were noting that some work was already beginning on a script.

Boilerplate even has his own Facebook page.

boiler fb

To see more details on his wild adventures, check out the main Boilerplate website.boiler 1898after combat

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3 Responses to The Lost History of “Boilerplate”

  1. “They” just want you to think it is fake.

  2. Bill Lussenheide says:

    Boilerplate and Elvis are both alive and well!

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