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The History of Robots in the Victorian Era

By Jim Regancsmonitor.com / January 16, 2004



HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA

Robots have been making significant inroads into our culture over the last few years. They're roaming on and around distant planets, building cars, vacuuming the rug and even serving as surrogate pets. But it may surprise you to learn that sophisticated androids have been walking the earth since at least the late 1800s - achieving feats that still haven't been equalled in the 21st century. (One prototype actually took part in World War One.) The History of Robots in the Victorian Era follows the careers of these early automatons, and at the same time, tests the limits of human credibility.

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Launched in July 2000 to tell the amazing story of "Boilerplate" (history's first mechanical soldier created in 1893), the website has since expanded to include three other milestones of robotic engineering - The Electric Man (1885), The Steam Man (1865), and the Automatic Man (exact date unknown). And while these Victorian marvels might have benefited from some more imaginative names, their exploits (from Antarctic exploration and circumnavigation to foiling train robberies) would put Honda's new robot ASIMO to shame. One can only imagine why so few of us know about these extraordinary machines today.

Unless, of course, it's because they never existed.

Truth be told, The History of Robots in the Victorian Era is an unintentional hoax - originally created as an online pitch for a graphic novel about the tin soldier, Boilerplate. (Samples from the book are posted onsite.) Things got interesting, though, when webmaster and commercial artist, Paul Guinan, realized that some visitors to the site were taking the fiction as fact, and, as would any self-respecting artist when faced with such an opportunity, Guinan decided to see just how real he could make his character seem. Still, this isn't a 'hoax' in the sense of a serious intent to deceive - there are clues throughout the site (not to mention articles about the true nature of Boilerplate's status), and at least one outright disclaimer - the latter included to appease the good folks at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Unfortunately, there was no way that I could properly review the site without first spilling the beans - since it's the execution of the fiction that makes The History remarkable. But even for those who are in on the joke, the story of Boilerplate is so thoroughly and convincingly done as to almost demand the willing suspension of disbelief.

Guinan closes the credibility gap by interweaving fact with fiction - a strategy which is itself enhanced by numerous examples of Photoshop sleight-of-hand used in creating the site's 'archival' images. (The full chronicle of Boilerplate includes more than 100 images, ranging from his first appearance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, to posing with Pancho Villa and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.) Guinan fills in Boilerplate's background with a biography of the tin man's inventor, and such ephemera as movie, vaudeville, and even Soviet propaganda posters featuring the robot. The story is further reinforced with such touches as 'then and now' photographs of the factory where the robot was constructed, and a tour of the renamed ship on which Boilerplate sailed to the Antarctic (currently on display at the aforementioned San Diego Maritime Museum). In combination, Guinan's various strategies could even leave even a skeptic still skeptical, but no longer rock solid in their lack of belief.

If you feel a bit cheated since you'll be viewing the site with knowledge of the 'real' story of Boilerplate, take heart - Guinan's intricate weaving of fiction with legitimate history serves to maintain an air of uncertainty about all of the 'archival' content on his site. For example, are the other robots depicted in the History more examples of the webmaster's artistic talents, harvested illustrations from real 19th and 20th century publications which were 'repurposed' to add credibility to the Boilerplate saga, or simply appreciations of previous artists' fictional robotic creations?

As an example, Victorian Robots makes frequent reference to the inventor, Frank Reade Jr., and displays many of his inventions. A Google search of the name reveals, among other things, an Arizona State University lecture and a US Centennial of Flight essay that make reference to 19th century dime novels featuring the fictional Reade's adventures - so Reade would appear to be a previously created fictional character, akin to Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger.

And yet both of these scholarly references list Guinan's pages as their only Reade source. Did these sites fall for Guinan's fictional creation of a fictional creation? Was Reade a real (fictional) character recruited to lend credibility to Guinan's stories? Is Reade actually the mastermind behind all these creations, trying to divert attention away from himself due to a debilitating introversion stemming from a traumatic third grade show-and-tell experience? The truth is out there - if it doesn't drive you crazy first.

On the design front, The History has a basic construction (read; fast loader) with only two idiosyncrasies - both, I expect, due to the site's age. First is a left-justified layout that may seem off balance to most, but will be a welcome sight for those still using 640x480 pixel monitors. Second is the navigation which, not surprisingly for a site which has been expanding piecemeal for more than three years, offers no simple linear routes for exploring the site. Fortunately, the History's online host has a site mapin case you're worried about missing any content. Or clues.

In a November 2000 interview, Guinan estimated that roughly a third of his visitors were accepting The History as fact. Of course, after reading this, you know better - but that's not to say you have to warn anybody else, if you suggest that they take a tour.

The History of Robots in the Victorian Era can be found at http://www.bigredhair.com/robots/.

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