Sometimes we believe that our age is the generator of all things cool and futuristic, yet that is not true. Throughout history man has always tried to find a way to power an automoton. Via electricity, steam or gears robots and mechanical humanoids have appeared at various times in history revealing a view to the future and a vision of how we may create life albeit artificial. Witness the material below and you’ll see earlier efforts to produce an independent being powered by steam that serves mankind. What’s interesting to me is the depiction and inventions always seem to lean towards a personal robotic slave rather than an intellectual companion. The closest we’ve come to that is the computer. Still the mechanical partner is always at man’s bidding and not an equal partner. I think we will advance a long way when artificial life is on an equal footing. It’s a matter of trust isn’t it?
When Professor Campion unveiled Boilerplate in 1893, the concept of a mechanical man was not a new one. Edward S. Ellis, in 1868, wrote about a prodigy that constructed a nonsentient automaton called the Steam Man. At the time, it was considered to be nothing more than an elaborate novelty item, like Boilerplate. Stories of its feats were relegated to the tabloids and “Edisonades.” In the account entitled Steam Man of the Prairies (the first of several such publications), Johnny Brainerd, a teenage dwarf, invented “a man that shall go by steam.” Here is how it was described:
“It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the ‘stove-pipe hat,’ which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of baseball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed differed from a human being.
“In the knapsack were the valves, buy which the steam or water was examined. In front was a painted imitation of a vest, in which a door opened to receive the fuel, which, together with the water, was carried in the wagon, a pipe running along the shaft and connecting with the boiler.
“The lines which the driver held controlled the course of the steam man; thus, by pulling the strap on the right, a deflection was caused which turned it in that direction, and the same acted on the other side. A small rod, which ran along the right shaft, let out or shut off the steam, as was desired, while a cord, running along the left, controlled the whistle at the nose.
“The legs of this extraordinary mechanism were fully a yard apart, so as to avoid the danger of its upsetting, and at the same time, there was given more room for the play of the delicate machinery within. Long, sharp, spike-like projections adorned the soles of the immense foot, so that there was little danger of its slipping, while the length of the legs showed that, under favorable circumstances, the steam man must be capable of very great speed.”
After Frank Reade Jr. assembled his improved version of his father’s Steam Man, he turned to producing a mechanical man that would be powered by electricity. The result was the Electric Man, shown above and at right, during a trial run. In 1886, Reade Jr. traveled with this metal giant on a world tour similar to Archibald Campion’s journey with Boilerplate.