Reviewed in the United States on April 11, 2003
We celebrate athletes of strength, agility, and skill. We do not celebrate nerds, who not only do not win, but do not compete. As the twentieth century was closing, though, nerds who had a special fascination for electromechanical gadgets had a previously impossible sport in which to show creativity, cunning, and a killer instinct. "Gearheads" these particular nerds were called, and their games were played under the names of "Robot Wars," "Battlebots," "Robotica" and others. While it remains to be seen if this revolutionary form of competition will be long-lasting, the sport has had a colorful beginning and plenty of people interested in it as spectacle. _Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports_ (Simon & Schuster) by Brad Stone is a funny, sad, and weird account of how these metal crunching monsters compete, and how greed and litigation ruins dreams.
It is important to realize that the robots described herein are not necessarily machines that we would think of as robots. The gearheads' robots are manipulated by a controller in the same way that hobbyists operate radio controlled cars. But for competition, RC Car Joust didn't sound nearly as good as Robot Wars, and so the inventor of this competition, Marc Thorpe, expanded the definition. He was interested in starting a commercial venture that would give his family a sound future, and had been intrigued with machines that did performance art and some primitive mechanical jousting. Unfortunately for Thorpe, he had to find a backer. His partner, Steve Plotnicki, surely had the money; he was a record executive who had been responsible for such acts as the seminal rappers Run DMC. The eager but naïve Thorpe didn't check much into Plotnicki's record, which included vituperative litigation against his former stars. _Gearheads_ is largely about the legal battles that followed, and they are as vicious as any of the buzz saw, pneumatic ram, and knife battles that took place in the Robot Wars ring. The legal battles are long, and sad, but more entertaining are the description of the gearheads themselves, and the way they participated in a hobby that turned into an obsession for many of them. One of them says, "The thrill is hard to describe. It's better than fishing, a whole lot better than baseball. It's fighting and it's not fighting. It's just boys at play."
Along the way, Stone describes the decades of violent and very noisy, not to mention illegal, robotic performance art spectacles arranged by Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Laboratories. Pauline was much more interested in the dadaism of destruction (and troublemaking in general) than in rule-bound competition. Also here are Woody Flowers, the MIT teaching genius who teamed up with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to start FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), robot competition for high schoolers that stressed cooperation as much as competition (and thereby seems to have lost much of its entertainment punch). Combining portraits of some very peculiar inventors, a troubling tale of lost fortunes and litigation, and amazing descriptions of battles between Spiny Norman, Blendo, Biohazard, Thor, Ziggo, Ginsu, Mechadon, and others, _Gearheads_ is fine entertainment, and might be an important documentation of a new sport's genesis.