October 27, 2009
Remote-controlled drones are commonplace over today’s battlefields, playing an important role in U.S. air superiority. But one of the first military uses of a robot is almost completely forgotten—the story of “Boilerplate,” part of the U.S. Army’s 1st Aero Squadron.
Wait—you’ve never heard of Boilerplate, the Victorian-era mechanical man who fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia, and who (controversially, considering his orders) actually saved Pancho Villa’s life?
That’s because Boilerplate is the invention of husband-and-wife graphic novel team Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who this month published the complete adventures of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel in a lavishly illustrated book that retells American history through the eyes of the imaginary robot.
Ordinary history books show that when Francisco “Pancho” Villa led a surprise attack on Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, he was hoping to provoke a U.S. military response that would help rally peasant support against the U.S.-backed Mexican president Venstiano Carranza. His tactic worked. The 93 U.S. soldiers deployed in the “Punitive Expedition” had at their disposal various motorcycles, trucks and cars—and eight Curtiss JN-3 biplanes, the U.S. Army’s entire air force.
But in Guinan and Bennett’s revised history, the Aero Squadron’s reconnaissance mission—the airplanes were used strictly for observation and communication—was aided by the world’s first robot, shown here helping a “Jenny” ready for takeoff. (Boilerplate’s previous flying experience consisted of fleeing the 1900 Boxer uprising in Peking via an airship.)
The fictional robot even duped comedian and author Chris Elliott, who used Boilerplate—which he considered historical, public domain material—in his 2005 novel The Shroud of the Thwacker. An abashed Elliot told Publishers Weekly in 2005, “People think because of my comedy career I must be smart, but the truth is I am a total moron.”