Boilerplate looks like an old stove with legs. He was built by Chicagoan Archibald Campion as the model for a new kind of soldier -- for "preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations." After many exotic adventures around the globe, he disappeared in 1918, during World War I, in the Argonne Forest in northeast France: No piece of wreckage was ever found. Subsequent rumors, though, suggested that the robot had been recovered by the Germans and later rechristened as "Panzermann."
This robot, given his due in "Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel" (Abrams Image: 168 pp., $24.95), is actually the creation of Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, a husband-wife team of comic book veterans. Like the novel "The Difference Engine" and all its Steampunk progeny, this book imagines our world as a place of clockwork parts and steam-driven machines. The Steampunk world still contains sophisticated technologies, but they come with a crude, clanky appearance. Boilerplate is no exception. With his goggle eyes and horn-shaped speaker, he's the kind of robot that the Little Rascals probably would've built with parts found in a junkyard.
The book includes lavish illustrations and period photos that insert Boilerplate, a metallic version of Zelig -- or Forrest Gump -- into so many pivotal moments in American history. The illustrations are so good that there's a tangible, believable quality to them that has fooled many (just ask comedian Chris Elliott, who thought Boilerplate was real and used him in his 2005 debut novel -- later, according to one media outlet, he negotiated a settlement with the authors for using a copyrighted character). There's Boilerplate, standing next to Lawrence of Arabia, mingling with the Buffalo Soldiers, boxing with Jack Johnson, even traveling to the Yukon of Jack London. The book also includes a section, on other mechanical men, under the title "Boilerplate's Brethren."
"Boilerplate" is a delight, a perfect ramble of a read that needs no bigger justification than the pleasure of sharing in the authors' fantasy. But if you do need a bigger purpose before diving in, just consider: The variety of i-gadgets today are lauded for their smooth, sleek design, right? "Boilerplate," however, taps into a yearning for things that are more old-fashioned -- for technology that still has some wires showing.
-- Nick Owchar