Boilerplate : History's Mechanical Marvel is a wonder of a book! I have to confess to being predisposed to robots in general and, with a houseful of historians, there was no way I could miss this book. The biography of "the world's first robot soldier" designed in 1893 as a prototype by Professor Archibald Campion for the self-proclaimed purpose of "preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations, " Boilerplate follows the robot from his introduction into society to his final days. And, every steps of the way, the historical events that he takes part in are accurately and lovingly detailed (according to the historians in my house.)
As Sean G David, author of History Repeats: Lessons from a Gilded Age, notes in the forward to Boilerplate, "I first discovered Boilerplate while researching an article about Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. I kept running across tantalizing references to what seemed to be a mechanical soldier in original sources from throughout Pershing's career, starting in 1898."
The book begins with a chapter titled, "Professor Archibald Campion: An Inventor's Life - or - The Birth of Boilerplate." Archie and his older sister Lily seem to have their fates sealed for them by two events that took place in their early adulthood. In 1871, newlywed Lily's husband, a naval officer named Hugh W McKee, was killed in the Korean war. Shortly thereafter, their parents perished in the Great Chicago Fire. One of the things I love about Boilerplate , and what makes it a GREAT book for kids - boys especially - is that this "biographical" information is followed by three pages of factual information regarding the First Korean War and the Great Chicago Fire. In fact, historical information abounds in this book, possibly even outnumbering the brilliant fiction.
Boilerplate was unveiled on May 23, 1893 at the World's Columbian Exhibition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair. Above is a picture of Boilerplate and Lily on the roof of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building as they gaze across the White City. Unfortunately, tragedies that surrounded the Exposition, from fires, small pox and the assassination of the city's mayor two days before the close of the fair, meant that the wonders of a mechanical soldier were overshadowed. As Lily noted in a letter to a friend at that time, "We have discovered a new irony of the modern age: In a place where everything is a wonderment, nothing is a wonderment."
In 1895, Boilerplate and Campion made their way to Antarctica where Archie Campion, with Boilerplate as his sled-puller, decided to make a solo attempt to reach the South Pole. Archie and Boilerplate also befriended the last Queen of Hawaii before moving on to African adventures with Boilerplate helping to build a rail line. Boilerplate and Campion manage to touch down on almost every significant world event of the day. From the Goldrush to the Panama Canal to a tour around the world on the USS Illinois. Archie and Lily, and therefore Boilerplate, became engrossed in the shocking lives of child laborers in 1911 with the hopes of convincing industry to build and employ robots instead of children to work in factories.
Finally, Boilerplate saw some action in the Spanish-American War as he fought right begind Teddy Roosevelt. From there he went on to fight in the Phillipine-American War and the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Russo-Japanese War where Boilerplate made supply runs that were too dangerous for humans. Boilerplate traveled through the Arabian Desert with TE Lawrence despite the fact that the sand was a constant danger to his joints before heading out to fight in WWI where he disappears while delivering food and water to the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest.
The last portion of the book follows the lives of Archie and Lily as they continue to be the social and political activists that they are. The final chapter of the book focuses on the mythologizing and memorializing of Boilerplate that went on in the decades following his disappearance. Early in his writing career, Jack London supposedly wrote a series of stories called, "The Boilerplate Tales." The "Boilerplate Rag" became a popular tune and several comic books and a failed Saturday morning cartoon starring Boilerplate were created. There is also a chapter on robots in history and the people (men) who invented them. Finally, the book includes a timeline and an index. Because of the time during which Boilerplate was part of society coincided with the rise of photography, there is ample "documentation" of his existence that makes the book infinitely readable for the younger fan of robots. For the older fans, oddly enough, it is the humanity of the story of this metal man that is most compelling.