Alternate History Lessons in Boilerplate and Frank Reade

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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I’ve always loved science fiction. History? Not so much. It was only after college that I began to enjoy reading books about World War II, for example, or the early days of computing. I’ve enjoyed reading a few historical biographies here and there, and lately I’ve had an interest in reading about early technologies such as metalworking and steam engines. History wasn’t a topic of interest at a younger age, and I remember quite clearly the history books I was provided in school being not all that interesting, with plenty of dry facts and the occasional drawing, painting, or photo thrown in for flavor. I’m fairly certain that it was the presentation of history that turned me off for a while.

Maybe things have changed today. I know kids have access to online resources that can provide answers to just about any question they may have about history and every other topic they’re studying in school. But until every kid starts carrying a laptop or tablet in their backpack and reading (and watching) their educational material in digital format, books are still going to be the primary method for information delivery. And because of that, I’m wondering how many kids these days are still reading the same old history books that I read in school, eyes half open during the lectures, and watching the clock as they wait for the bell.

It’s really too bad that my history books weren’t written by the husband/wife team of Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan. I have a very strong suspicion that if my history books… scratch that, really any textbooks… were put together by this team of graphic artists, I may have spent more time actually reading the history lessons and less time highlighting the various dates and names scattered in the text and less time skimming the images and hoping to gleam a bit of actual learning from the figures.

The only problem I have with this creative team is that the history books they do actually put together don’t actually fall completely in the realm of accuracy. They’re more speculative historical fiction. Other than that, the two history books they have released are the most fun I’ve had reading about a history that might had been. Let me explain.

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The first book I’d like to share with you is titled Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel. Invented by Archibald Campion (with some assistance provided by Nikola Tesla), this robot could walk and talk with the visitors at the 1893 World’s Fair where the robot was first introduced to society. What the authors have done with this book is extrapolate a bit with the history we do know by mixing in the appearance of this wonderful invention at various key events and with many important historical figures.

Take, for example, Boilerplate’s participation in the construction of the Panama Canal. The book provides a lot of actual details about the Canal such as its opening date (1914) and details about its handover to Panama (1999). What makes it fun, however, are the photos showing Boilerplate standing underneath a giant steam shovel with the men involved in the digging. The historical data is (mostly) correct, but it’s the way the authors have created supporting imagery with Boilerplate added in that makes the book so fun to read.

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And it’s not all photographs. The book contains magazine covers, paintings, sketches, 3D cards, and other forms of imagery. And Boilerplate isn’t always the center of attention. You’ll often find a photo that looks completely normal… but zoom in a bit with some graphical magic and there’s Boilerplate off to the side in the photo having a conversation with some folks on the streets of Old New York or hiking through a forest with fellow soldiers. The authors often hide Boilerplate’s existence to further add to the belief that he could easily have been present at many special events in history. Blink once and you’ll miss it.

Boilerplate is a busy robot — you’ll find him crossing the desert with Lawrence of Arabia, fighting in both World Wars, helping the Air Force get its first plane in the air, riding alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, and hundreds more special events. Throughout the book, readers are entertained, but they’re also provided with a large percentage of accurate history that include the start of wars, the rise of various movements, and the developments of actual technologies. No history teacher would actually use this book in class for risk of actually teaching something inaccurate, but take Boilerplate out of the book completely, and you’d have a fairly accurate book of historical facts. The authors have woven in Boilerplate so well to the historical narrative that you’ll often find yourself (as I have) running to do a quick Google search to see if a particular event was factual or tweaked a bit by two very creative authors.

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I really enjoyed Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel when it was released in 2009, so when I heard that the team was releasing a new and similar book titled Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention, I knew I was in for another fun read of reworked history.

Frank Reade was the hero of a series of dime novels set in the late 1800s, stories with proto-steampunk elements such as robots and steam-powered vehicles that accompanied his adventures. Well, Bennett and Guinan have taken the limited number of stories told about Reade and once again extrapolated a bit of real-world history. I can’t honestly say how much of this book is based on real history as the character of Frank Reade has a much more dominant position in the book’s coverage of historical events than does Boilerplate. It would take some time to separate the fact from fiction in this second book, but I think that’s why I have enjoyed Frank Reade even more than the history of Boilerplate.

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The book is filled with hundreds of photos, drawings, cartoons, and book and magazine covers. I’m sure that much of the work done to create all this great content is wasted on me as I have very little understanding in the work required to simulate all the realistic images and recreations of actual documents. That’s why I think this book succeeds so well… only 40 pages or so into the book and I was completely pulled into the life and times of Frank Reade (Jr.) and his dozens of inventions and death-defying adventures. That’s when I knew they had me… I knew I was reading fiction, but the fiction was so gritty and varied in its narrative that it made me wish this really was the historical record. Quotes from companions, interviews, excerpts from news stories… I wish all historical biographies were this detailed. (Of course, most real historical figures don’t have the large number of fake experiences that Frank Reade and Boilerplate do to warrant a real book full of recollections of adventures.)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of steampunk, but I’ve tried to avoid linking these two books to that genre. Other than Boilerplate’s look, his book really doesn’t fall too deeply into the steampunk pool. The same cannot be said for Frank Reade, as most of his adventures do involve some sort of steam-powered locomotion. So, for fans of steampunk, all I’ll say on this point is that this book is full of the stuff you love best and I’ll leave it there.

Don’t ask me to pick a favorite — I loved long before I ever imagined there could be a follow-up book. For a few years at least, I imagined that this book would stand alone, with no competitor to match its fun and colorful way of making history fun to read. I was wrong, but I’m glad to know that the competitor came from the same creators.

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The real history of the world is certainly interesting enough, but I can’t help but smile when I think how much more fun it would have been if Boilerplate and Frank Reade had been an actual part of it. Thankfully, these two books give a glimpse into what could have been. And Bennett and Guinan have a promising career waiting for them should they ever choose to devote their talents to changing the way real history books are written and illustrated.

I’d like to thank the folks at Abrams (especially David, Nancy, and Maya) for providing me a copy of Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention to review for this post as well as a great collection of images. They’ve also generously offered up two prizes for our readers. The first prize is a Frank Reade Gift Box that contains a copy of the Frank Reade book, a compass, some chocolate coins, and some Frank Reade bookmarks. The second prize is a copy of the Frank Reade book. The prizes are available to US residents only (sorry), so if you’d like a chance at the prizes, please leave a brief comment telling me where exactly in your family’s history that an encounter with Boilerplate occurred. (Keep it clean, folks.) Please submit your comment on or before 11:59pm PDT Friday, March 2, 2012 and I’ll select two random winners from the eligible comments.

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