Boilerplate – a mechanical marvel that never really existed….
by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
Boilerplate is a fascinating concept – a mockumentary coffee table book dealing with the heroic exploits of Boilerplate – a Victorian Era mechanical man. He crops up everywhere from his creation in 1893 until his disappearance in 1918; possibly making it to the South Pole way before Amundsen, meeting Lawrence of Arabia, serving in WWI and much, much more. Indeed you may well be wondering after a little while why you’ve never heard of Boilerplate before.
Well, the reason is simple; Boilerplate never actually existed. He’s not actually an invention of one Professor Archibald Campion, but the creation of Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, the husband and wife team most often remembered for their work on Heartbreakers. And with Boilerplate, they’ve created a very unusual book indeed.
(Professor Archibald Balthazar Campion (1862-1938) and his greatest invention: Boilerplate. Chicago, November 1893. From Boilerplate by Guinan and Bennett. Abrams Images.)
The idea of inserting a completely fictional character into key moments in history is in no way new – indeed Woody Allen, with Take The Money And Run and Zelig is credited with inventing the “mockumentary” idea, but it’s been done in literature countless times before then. So Boilerplate is by no means the first book to play with this idea of fictionalised reality. But that really doesn’t matter. What really counts is how well this book reads – and personally I thought it was very good indeed.
We follow the life and times of Boilerplate here from his creation through to his disappearance, taking in much of the major historical events of the times. And in fact, the book is so packed with historical reference that lesser scholars than myself will find themselves scurrying to wikipedia within a few pages. (Okay. I admit, that was me scurrying to wikipedia. My history has never been that good. I blame the teachers). But within Boilerplate you do actually get a nice little history lesson, full of colourful characters, from Teddy Roosevelt to Nicolas Tesla and more, all seamlessly worked into the Boilerplate legend without having to alter the actual facts all that much.
Obviously, as you’d expect now the digital manipulation of the images to put Boilerplate in these situations is perfect, seamless stuff. That’s not the clever bit though – the clever bit is in the writing; Guinan does such a convincing job of mooring Boilerplate in the reality of historical fact that it feels very likely that Boilerplate really existed, and it’s necessary to remind yourself throughout that the robot is a complete fiction – and that, to my mind, is a definite proof that the book does exactly what it’s authors wanted it to.
(A double page spread from Boilerplate to give you an idea of the great design sense at work throughout the book. From Boilerplate by Guinan and Bennett. Abrams Images.)
It’s a beautifully presented Steampunk artbook, every page packed with details in both text and illustrations, and with a nice design sense running throughout. Full of details, illustrations, manipulated photo reference, maps, posters, cartoons, maps and more, all designed to create a completely immersive experience. It really does feel like a historical coffee table book and it’s an engrossing, absorbing, ridiculous read of a book. Full of marvellous history, full of ridiculous invention and a very enjoyable bit of nonsense.
For more information, the Boilerplate website is a great place to start.