Jack Johnson vs Boilerplate - the accidental hoax
In the early hours of the morning, while fighting a losing bout with insomnia, I was browsing my Twitter feed when I suddenly came across a rather astonishing photo of Jack Johnson.
Staring me in the face was an image of the iconic former World Heavyweight Champion, who reigned from 1908 to 1915, sparring with a human size robot named 'Boilerplate' at a training camp in 1910. (See left - photo copyright of Paul Guinan).
For a split second, through weary eyes, I almost believed it was genuine. But almost as quickly alarm bells started ringing.
For several years I’ve been digging through newspaper archives and other historical sources as part of a long-running and ongoing research project.
And yet I’d never seen or read anything about this – how could this be? How had I missed this quirky tale involving one of the greatest heavyweight champs of all time?
A quick look around Twitter and Facebook revealed the image was being merrily retweeted and shared among boxing fans, virtually nobody questioning the photo’s authenticity.
But if it looks too good to be true it probably isn’t – and it didn’t take long to get to the bottom of this particular mystery.
In around 2000 a US multimedia artist named Paul Guinan created 'Boilerplate' as an online 'pitch' to publishers who might consider the robot as a possible concept for a graphic novel.
The back story created for the entirely fictional automaton was that he was a little known Victorian robot developed in the 1880s by an inventor named Archibald Campion and unveiled to the world at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
This functioning mechanical man, supposedly a forgotten technological milestone, was (the story went) intended to be a prototype soldier built for “preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations”.
'Boilerplate' was said to have travelled the world, sharing adventures with famous people such as Teddy Roosevelt, Pancho Villa and, in this instance, Jack Johnson, before mysteriously vanishing during World War One.
The robot’s adventures were (and still are) detailed on a website, accompanied by historic images into which 'Boilerplate', in reality a 12-inch model, had been carefully photoshopped so he appeared to have been present at the time. (Click here to access the website). Guinan has also authored a lavishly illustrated book, Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel, detailing the fictional 'history' of his creation.
To Guinan’s surprise many people over the years have believed the stories and images he has conjured are authentic – and thus a myth has been born.
The Jack Johnson image appears to be a particularly enduring fake – in this case 'Boilerplate' has been inserted into a real 1910 photo in the place where Johnson’s sparring partner Marty 'Kid' Cutler was actually standing. (See the original photo at the bottom of this page).
Every now and again the photo pops up again on the internet and gets a new lease of life – perhaps because fight fans assume the name 'Boilerplate' was a jokey contemporary reference to Johnson’s rival Jim “The Boilermaker” Jeffries.
But, as the great Jeffries might have said in the fistic parlance of the time, 'Boilerplate' is a 'four-flusher', a fake fighter.
So the next time someone shows you the photo, or tells you about the day the Galveston Giant took on a robot, just remember – IT’S NOT REAL!