Marc Thorpe, the original creator of the famed remote-controlled bot battling competition Robot Wars and godfather of today’s bot deathmatch scene, died this past Friday, Nov. 24, at the age of 77 due to complications from his long fight against Parkinson’s disease. His death was officially confirmed by his daughter Megan Feffer and on Thorpe’s own website.
Close to three decades ago, there was the usual slate of TV violence, and then there was Robot Wars and its later derivatives like the popular BattleBots series. The shows were manic, no-holds-barred death matches that featured stomping, slamming, spinning, murderous, mauling, manic machine mayhem. With the same sense and styling of a boxing match, the scenes could be far more brutal than two people slugging it out in a ring. Robot Wars arenas could involve environmental hazards like giant nets, wrecking balls, or flamethrowers. It was a spectacle of robo-gladiatorial combat that sucked a generation of mechanical engineers into a whole new, visceral kind of sport and inspired so many people to get into the field of robotics.
Thorpe was a San Francisco native who first made his name on the entertainment engineering scene with Industrial Lights and Magic where he worked on the props and effects for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. He later worked at LucasToys, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm, where he first devised the idea for Robot Wars after sticking a vacuum cleaner on top of a remote-controlled tank, according to Thorpe’s site. Though he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s that same year, his plan for a robot rumble blossomed into a full competition and television rights with the BBC in the UK.
Thorpe lost creative control of Robot Wars in 1997 after a series of legal wrangling with his primary sponsor Profile Records. He did surprise fans in 1999 when he handed out one of the world championship trophies to Team Razer during The Third Wars run. While Thorpe would often be referenced as the “godfather” of RC battling robots, he wouldn’t remain too involved in any of the spin-offs. In a 2016 Reddit AMA, Thorpe said he didn’t watch BattleBots because he didn’t “want to be a visitor to my own dream.” He also described modern renditions of battling robots as a “game show” adding “I prefer my format but the one they are using… obviously appeals to a large audience.”
Marc is survived by his daughter and his two grandchildren, but also by the legacy of competitive robot death matches. BBC rebooted Robot Wars in 2016 for a few new seasons back in 2016 before ending its run on the 11th series a few years later. BattleBots, on the other hand, has seen constant renewals, with most recent spinoffs including shows like BattleBots: Champions airing on Discovery+.
The official BattleBots Twitter account shared just how important Thorpe was to the entire legacy of rumbling robots, saying “This community starts with him, and during its darkest moments he held the torch.”
Robot Wars was unique in that all the violence was centered on the bots themselves, rather than people. And the folks behind the controls were engineers, AKA nerds, including people like Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters fame who originally got their start in the 1995 U.S. Robot Wars scene with their bot “Blendo.”