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The Factual Fiction of Paul Guinan's Hysterical Hoax

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The core inspiration of a hoax is to profit in some way from the gullibility of people too empty-headed to know better. To prey on the innocent--or ignorant for that matter--has been a source of amusement and arrogance for cruel and shifty bastards since the beginning of time. As any fool knows, we've all fallen for practical jokes and impractical pranks at some point in our lives. The thing is, until you know better, you don't know shit, and you're easy pickings.

A fair example of greenhorns who just don't know any better, would be a recent hoax involving numerous Portuguese women who hung outside their windows, baring their naked breasts for all to see. Why? Because they received telephone calls from a conveniently anonymous "doctor" who informed them they were eligible to get special "mammograms" via satellite. P.T. Barnum's classic line will never go out of fashion. Unquestionably, there is a sucker born every minute.

Other hoaxes involve more sophisticated and harmful plots that can lead to personal injury or even financial ruin, which more often than not fall into sinister categories of criminal mischief or outright larceny. Then we have examples like Boilerplate, the creation of 39-year-old commercial artist and amateur historian Paul Guinan.

Boilerplate is a little-known Victorian era robot that caroused with luminaries of the period, traversed the globe, and shared adventurous endeavors with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Pancho Villa. The robot's exploits are painstakingly chronicled in resplendent detail on Guinan's website [www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate/index.html]. The site bulges with information, souvenirs, vintage photographs, and written accounts dating from the robot's initial construction and "unveiling" in 1893, to its mysterious disappearance during World War I. In the face of that evidence, the kicker is that Boilerplate never really existed. As true as it all looks, it's just an elaborate hoax. And at times, it's extremely funny.

Mechanical Marvel Boilerplate... OUTED!

"Boilerplate was a mechanical man developed by Archibald Campion during the 1880s and unveiled at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition," the title page of Guinan's site commands. "Boilerplate is one of history's great ironies, a technological milestone that remains largely unknown. Even in an age that gave birth to the automobile and aeroplane, a functioning mechanical man should have been accorded more significance."

Only recently did the vintage robot finally get the attention some think it deserves; Boilerplate's Portland-based creator was "outed" by Thomas Hayden in a special edition of U.S. News & World Report, entitled "The Art of the Hoax."

"

Boilerplate works," Hayden told me, "because of people's gullibility rather than Guinan's guile. That being said, the presentation of the Boilerplate site is very nicely done and filled with 'facts' and anecdotes and charming photographs that lend it an impressive verisimilitude. It's just that the underlying premise--that Victorian technology could create a humanoid automaton--is completely unbelievable; modern roboticists still can't achieve anything close."

"He's an artist and a Victorian sci-fi buff," Hayden opined, obviously more amused by Guinan's ruse than alarmed. "Put the two interests together and you get Boilerplatebut if you know anything about the history of robotics (or about history at all, really) it's immediately obvious that the site is a joke. The amazing thing is that some seemingly intelligent people believe it anyway.

"

I don't think he really fooled 'experts' per se, as in no roboticist would fall for it. Historians who fell for it presumably had no background in technology, and I would imagine, fired off inquisitive emails without really thinking about the possibility that the site was a spoof."

Hayden's hoax-detection advice: "The first clue that something might not be true is the reaction, 'Oh my god, that is so freaking cool, I can't believe it's really true!' If it seems too good/cool/weird to be true, hey, big surprise, chances are it is."

Of Pride and Embarrassment

Lightly stirring a small cappuccino inside the Common Grounds Coffee House, Guinan and I sat on teetering stools overlooking Hawthorne. With the mid-afternoon sun illuminating his bleached blonde hair and door-wedge sideburns, the Chicago transplant turned his gaze from the busy boulevard to meet my own. In an accomplished tone, he gave me the skinny on Boilerplate.

Boilerplate started out as an online illustrated 'pitch' to encourage publishers to consider the concept for a graphic novel, and things simply escalated from there. Shortly after posting his original smattering of images and text, Guinan began to get letters from visitors to his site. Many of them thought Boilerplate was the real deal, and Guinan was more than happy to play along. After all, it was always his intention to make Boilerplate appear as colorful and genuine as possible.

When the idea first hit home that the fictional Boilerplate was regularly being perceived as authentic, Guinan admitted he felt, "a combination of both pride and embarrassment."

"Certainly I felt happy about having achieved my goal," he said. "I put this thing across as trying to be real, and people bought into it. So, that's a success! But, as an amateur historian, I feel a responsibility to get the story right. So I felt bad about some of these people being hoaxed. It was a mixed bag."

"But," he revealed, "I thought, if I was getting this reaction and I wasn't really trying, then what would happen if I really tried?"

Caveat Robotor

It should be noted that not everyone has fallen so easily for the Boilerplate hoax. Along with letters of amazement posted on Guinan's site, are plenty of examples from people who get the joke, and praise his talents as a hoax puppet master. "Boilerplate is a HOOT!" one reader wrote. "I wonder if he ever met Elvis?"

Another reader noted, "Very convincing presentation--for awhile I thought I was reading actual research rather than fiction. (You did make it all up, right?)"

Even the stuffed shirts at NASA got into the act, offering Boilerplate as one of its Space Telerobotics Program's "Cool Robot of the Week" listings, coincidentally, on April 1st, 2002.

Guinan estimates the non-believer/ believer ratio hovers around 2 to 1, respectively. "I do have a few clues here and there--if people look at the whole site, they eventually figure it out--but they are buried."

The true impact of his dirty deeds smacked Guinan, when he got a letter from Thomas Duvernay, whose own history site is linked to Boilerplate's.

Duvernay's site features information on Hugh McKee, a real person, who Guinan lists as being married to Lily Campion: Archibald Campion's sister. Remember, it was Archibald Campion who Guinan says designed and built Boilerplate.

"He (Duvernay) wrote in asking me to send information on a fictitious character that I had married to a real-life personage that he was an expert of (McKee or Lily's "husband"). That's when I became embarrassed and realized the implications. "Oh gosh! I might really be screwing things up for people!""

Guinan said he wrote back to Duvernay apologizing, but added it was important that he keep the biographer's link on the Boilerplate site. "I have real-life links spread throughout the site for further information. It's not unlike after you watch a television program and it says at the end, if you want to know more--go to your library."

"This is my way of hopefully encouraging people to look into the more obscure aspects of history that I enjoy. He (Duvernay) wrote back saying that he was perfectly happy with it, that it was okay, because it meant he hadn't missed anything. It was very important (to him) that he'd gotten all his research right. I felt very relieved."

Early on, Guinan got a letter from a guy who thought Boilerplate was amazing, but when he tried to search for other mentions of the fictional character on the internet, he soon found the search results all pointed back to Guinan's site.

Maddening Minutia

One of the reasons the Boilerplate site not only hooks unsuspecting internet fish, but reels them in, is because Paul Guinan is a stickler for details, historical and illustrative.

Guinan is convinced it's the little things that matter most. "I've found that what really helps to sell the site is the ephemera that seems to be inconsequential." His site is riddled with vivid examples of his obsession with details.

"It's one thing to have, sort of a centerpiece, like a photograph of Boilerplate with a famous personage. But it's another thing to have little details you wouldn't normally think of. Like little souvenir tickets and things like that, or have a detail from what is supposed to be some kind of Soviet propaganda poster and you just see a part of it. Things that don't relate to your story in any waythat help flesh it out."

This idea came from Guinan's working in comic books. Traditionally, publishers like DC, Dark Horse, and Mercury Studios have assembly lines of artists creating finished projects on a monthly basis, giving them little time to waste on the small stuff. "That's why comics are sort of regarded as a ghetto medium for a lot of illustrators. A lot of it is kind of 'half work' because of the timetable."

As a result, Guinan believes most comics artists avoid including all the particulars that "breathe life into a scene." Particulars he feels compelled to embrace in his own work.

In fact, he obsessively includes as much minutia as he can possibly squeeze in. "I'm maddeningly detailed about the times, the places, dates, and the specific events. But then I'm maddeningly vague about the robot itself. How did he function? What was his power source? Was he sentient? Could he carry on a conversation? I don't include any of that. But it's so loaded with other details that the readers themselves fill them in subconsciously. I think that makes a stronger audience connection when they can bring their own baggage to the character."

As authentic as Boilerplate appears--and honestly, if I didn't know better I'd be inclined to believe it actually did exist--Guinan's embedded clues should be able to warn any attentive person of historical embellishments, as well as out right falsifications. Right? Guess not.

"There will always be at least some percentage of people who are going to believe it anyway, no matter what I say. It's like Orson Welles and his radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds. At the top of the show, and halfway through the show, he made disclaimers. But people weren't paying attention. They were freaking out. 'It's all in the details,' as it were."

How Boilerplate Really Works

While his inspiration often comes from a fascination with Victorian times--which celebrated scientific innovations (as well as sci-fi themes in pulp novels)--Guinan's near-perfect blend of historical facts and artistic executions make Boilerplate's story all the more convincing.

Those pulp novels, of which he has now become somewhat of an expert on, provide the basis for Guinan's creativity.

"Boilerplate is done in that tradition," Guinan chimed. "Presented as if it was realand taking advantage of the blurred line of what exists already."

"The way I've integrated Boilerplate into the storyline," Guinan disclosed, "does not interfere with actual history. Any event I talk about, right down to the smallest detail, actually took place. It's just that they didn't have this robot standing next to them at the time.

"For instance, I have a sequence where I talk about how at one point the U.S. forces, under (General) Pershing, go into Mexico on a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa during a combat situation. There is a machine gun trained on Pancho Villa, and it lets loose a fusillade of bullets and Boilerplate steps in front of Pancho and manages to save his life. He prevents the machine gun bullets from reaching Pancho Villa; except for one, which manages to get him in the leg."

"Well," Guinan announced triumphantly, "that actually happened! That scene is exactly from history. He was attacked. He was shot in the leg. He was carried off that night. But, there wasn't a robot." Similar tales depict Boilerplate palling around with famous inventors, Victorian ladies, the Japanese Imperial Army, Arctic explorers, and a toothy Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, among others.

"I initially established a timeline where Boilerplate is unveiled at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and then just because I always enjoy stories that end in somewhat of a mystery, you know, like Amelia Earhart, I have him disappear during World War I. Presumed killed, destroyed, whatever."

Continuity dictates that all of Boilerplate's adventures must take place in that time period, which Guinan thinks was the last great age of adventure and exploration. "Trying to get to the South Pole, mysterious lost continents or riversbefore we had everything all mapped out." Everything in between is fair game.

"I peruse books from the period, and when I come across a storyline, or in particularfind a photograph that catches my eye. Once I choose a photo that works for me and a storyline that works, then I go about doing the Photoshop and the compositing, and write a story around it."

"But again," he insisted, "it doesn't interfere with the real history. That's actually an interesting challenge, to try and shoehorn a fiction into something real without affecting the outcome."

A Successful Hoax!

The flood of recent unexpected attention regarding Guinan and the Boilerplate project has not only surprised him--it seems to have worked commercially, and with results even he hadn't imagined.

It is entirely possible he was pulling my chain (I can be such a sucker for a satisfactory conclusion). But, as he licked the remaining foam from his lips, Guinan said he has been offered a potentially lucrative deal: wherein Boilerplate will soon appear in an oversized coffee table book depicting its various historical exploits.

Furthermore, Boilerplate will also be featured in the pilot episode of an up-coming television series from Tactical-Media called The Sci-Fi Road Show.

And possibly the most surprising news to date; filmmaker Dan Junge, who won Best Feature Documentary for his film, Chiefs, at Robert De Niro's 2002 Tribeca Film Festival, has secured the rights to produce a full-length mockumentary about Boilerplate, Ken Burns-style. Anticipate woefully slow pans across Boilerplate's comically somber, sepia-toned puss, and sincere quotes from voice actors portraying Victorian luminaries.

In light of this unexpected turn of fortune, it seems Paul Guinan certainly has his future work cut out for him, while he reinvents the past. Trust him to continue to "tell an interesting story, turn people on to history, and have fun."

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