Drunken Cows Abused My Eland

…and they crapped on my lawn!


The Doclopedia #1,181

Send In The Clowns: Boffo, The Clockwork Clown

Way back in 1870, in San Francisco, a rather mad inventor named Volmer Heely built an amazing clockwork man. The intricacy of the inner workings of his creation were decades ahead of anything else anywhere in the world and allowed this clockwork being to move as smoothly as a human. Inside the skull and the lower torso were small metal disks that functioned like the punch cards used in an analytical engine. There were dozens of them, each holding a quite large amount of programming. Even better, in the upper torso was a device that could actually create new programming based upon events the machine experienced.

The creation was powered by a series of springs that would either wind up as other springs wound down, or that he himself could wind up using a key. A voice, with a somewhat limited vocabulary, was provided via a special sort of music box setup.

Now, in other hands, this amazing clockwork man might have been used as a servant or soldier or assassin or something, but Volmer Heely wanted to spread joy and happiness through the world, so he, made his creation into a clown that he named Boffo. He then programmed Boffo to do all the things clowns do and more. Once this was done, he sent his clockwork clown out into the world.

Within a week, Boffo was the hottest thing in San Francisco. He would walk around town juggling, dancing, miming, doing cartwheels and generally being funny. Children of all ages would follow him for blocks. He was written up in the local newspapers and son, word of this incredible clown was popping up in print around the country.

After about three months in San Francisco, Heely did some minor repairs and tweaks on Boffo and then sent him out to tour the country and the world, which he did for 20 years. Millions of folks saw Boffo doing his thing in circuses, theaters and just out on the street. He performed for presidents and kings and even the Pope. And of course, he entertained millions of children.

In 1890, Boffo went back to San Francisco and Volmer Heely. Heely was very proud of his creation and gave Boffo a major upgrade that included a vastly better vocabulary and much more human look. He replaced Boffo’s program disks with several banks of what we would call punch tape drives. This increased Boffo’s available memory by a couple of orders of magnitude. It also gave Boffo the skills needed to do card tricks and such. Best of all, he created a clockwork monkey named Miki to be Boffo’s companion and sidekick.

Again Boffo went out into the world and again he was a huge success. He traveled mostly with circuses for another 20 years, usually as the star of the show. He so impressed Mark Twain that Twain wrote “One cannot help but think that a world without Boffo would be considerably worse for those of us made of flesh & blood.” In Barcelona, they erected a statue to him. In Japan, they sold thousands of Boffo dolls. The clockwork clown was a much beloved fellow.

When Boffo returned home in the spring of 1910, he found his creator old and in poor health, but still inventing things with the help of his son and grandson. Twenty years of inventing had lead them to the creation of a much better body and artificial brain for Boffo. Once the upgrades were complete, the clown would be indistinguishable from a human unless he were examined by a doctor.

But this upgrade never happened. Boffo explained that he was happy as he was, although he did ask for a new memory setup. He wanted to continue performing as the Clockwork Clown, not as a human. Volmer Heely accepted this and after some more minor repairs and tweaks, once again sent Boffo on his way. Six months later, Heely died in his sleep.

Boffo continued traveling the world, including entertaining troops in World Wars I & II (he lost Miki to a sniper in France) and Korea. He appeared in movies and television programs in over 30 countries. In 1958, the United Nations awarded Boffo a special medal for his humanitarian work.

On June 3rd, 1960, at 2:15 pm, Boffo was back in San Francisco performing for a group of children when he just stopped moving. He was taken to the workshop of Frank Heely, grandson of Volmer. It was there that Heely found a note in Boffo’s pocket, one that had probably been there for decades. It read…

To Whom It May Concern,

Should I be disabled or stop functioning, please do not repair me. I have lived a long life and do not wish to be upgraded or rebuilt. If possible, please return me to San Francisco and put me on display somewhere that many people will see me.

Thank you,


And so it was done. Today, you can see Boffo standing exactly as he stopped at the cable car turnaround in downtown San Francisco, next to a plaque with his story on it.


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