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Richer Gear

Author Brad Stone chronicles the big egos and big money behind the rise of robot combat

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YOU'VE GOT to make the other robot your bitch," said Morgan Tilford in his Portola Valley home to a camera crew from Comedy Central in the summer of 2000. The TV channel had recently staged its first Battlebots event and was conducting interviews with several of the gearheads who designed robots for the battle. Tilford's father, Charles, who built the "South Bay Mauler" for the original Fort Mason Robot Wars event in 1994, was there, too. "I won't stop until I've achieved total robot domination worldwide," he declared.

This encounter is one of many related in Brad Stone's new book, Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports, chronicling the short but convoluted history of this phenomenon. A star-studded cast of scientists, businessmen, lawyers, renegades and Baywatch bimbos all factor in the equation. Beginning with iconoclastic troublemakers Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), who began staging violent, robotic performance art spectacles in San Francisco more than 25 years ago, Stone details the chaotic growth of commercial robotic sports all the way up to the summer of 2002. It is refreshing to finally see SRL portrayed as the precursor of this whole phenomenon, directly or indirectly.

Stone explains how special-effects wizard Mark Thorpe dreamed up the Robot Wars events at Fort Mason and then spent years battling it out in court with his partner, litigious record executive Steve Plotnicki. The explosive emotional turmoil of the legal disputes turned out to be just as violent as the robot battles themselves, resulting in a lively story of what can happen when a gutsy team of mechanical junkies and creators meet head to head with business, greed and the legal system. What's left after the storm is a surreal web of lawsuit slinging, back stabbing and money-grubbing that rivals the chaos of an SRL show.

Stone reiterates that commercial robotic sport was Mark Thorpe's original creative vision and that Steve Plotnicki was the guy who financed the whole thing. Thorpe was the naive, uncompromising creative type who refused to sacrifice inventive spirit and businessman Plotnicki was interested in profitability and nothing else. Any partnership between the two was doomed from the start.

In the end, you've got grand-scale robotic clashes on major networks, Carmen Electra and Donna D'Errico hosting the events, merchandising tie-ins with toy companies and ridiculous collaborations with the World Wrestling Federation. But the best stories in Gearheads are the personal slices of life from the robot builders themselves, several of whom are from the Bay Area. Some are bona fide rocket scientists and some are garage-tinkering geeks, but they all share the same obsessive lust for gears, machines and unabashed creativity. Whether or not you call it a "sport," robotic combat is definitely here to stay.


Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports by Brad Stone; Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $14 paperback. Stone will read from his book and sign copies Friday at 7pm at the Stanford Bookstore, 519 Lasuen Mall, Stanford. Charles and Morgan Tilford will appear beforehand at the bookstore's Robot Expo, 5-7pm. (650.725.6136)


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From the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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