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May 1, 1851: The First Dinomania (and Dinosaur Nightmares)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The first day of the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” was a great success – half a million people visited the official opening of the first World’s Fair at Crystal Palace, a 20 acres large greenhouse located in Hyde Park of central London.

Fig.1. Lithograph by Joseph Nash depicting the official opening at Crystal Palace, with the royal family presiding (Image in public domain, from the blog “Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs“).

Inside Crystal Palace the “very best that human ingenuity and cultivated art and science could inspire” was displayed to the curious public. One of the organizers and judges of the spectacle was 47 year old anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen, very busy supervising the zoological and botanical exhibitions, entertaining guests and awarding medals to the most spectacular curiosities.
Hiding in the crowds was another self-educated palaeontologist, 61 year old Gideon Mantell, who had made his way to London despite a severe and very painful injury of the spine. He remembers in his diary:

The effect is indescribably overpowering. I cannot express the effect it has left upon my mind; nothing can prepare you for this.

Mantel was enthusiastic about the new presented scientific tools, like telescopes, mechanical clocks and microscopes, but admired also the collection of geological specimens:

I managed to squeeze into the back and least crowded compartments of minerals and with some difficulty ascended the gallery overlooking the transept to look down on the sea of heads underneath.

The World’s Fair closed October 15, 1851. It was decided to relocate the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill, in suburb southern London, and a part of the permanent park should be devoted to geology and palaeontology.
In summer 1852 Mantell, discoverer of many fossil bones of prehistoric reptiles, was contacted by the Crystal Palace Company to discuss an ambitious project:

A “Geological Court [to] be constructed, containing a collection of full-sized models of the animals and plants of certain geological periods, and that Dr. Mantell be requested to superintend the formation of that collection.

Here was finally a chance for Mantell to present his discoveries to a larger public, however he realized that his bad health would prevent him to finish the project – and he refused. November 11, 1851 Mantell died due an overdose of opiates.

Under the severe examination of Richard Owen soon the first models of all known giant lizards of the timeIchthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, Pterodactyls and the dinosaurs Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylacosaurus (today referred as Hylaeosaurus) were completed.
Owen reconstructed the Iguanodon and the other dinosaurs as large, quadruped rhinoceroses, ignoring the observations of Mantell, who noted that the forelegs of the Iguanodon are smaller than the hind legs and the animal was more likely a (sort of) biped reptile.

Fig.2. An illustration by artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, published in 1854 in an article titled “On visual education as applied to geology” and dedicated to the reconstructions of Crystal Park. The various animals are arranged in their chronostratigraphic order (emphasized also by the geological section in the background), from right (oldest) to left (youngest) (image in public domain).

The life sized models of Crystal Palace inspired the very first “Dinomania“- hundreds of thousands of people visited the Crystal Palace creatures, dinosaurs were discussed in popular magazines and models, posters, poems and novels of prehistoric beasts were widely distributed and appreciated – to the great delight of cartoonists:

Fig.3. “The Effects of a Hearty Dinner after Visiting the Antediluvian Department at the Crystal Palace”, a cartoon published in the magazine Punch in 1855 (image in public domain). An unsuspecting visitor of the Crystal Palace exhibition is haunted in his nightmares by the monstrosities emerging from the distant (and not so distant) past.

Bibliography:

CADBURY, D. (2010): The Dinosaur Hunters. A true Story of Scientific Rivalry & the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Fourth Estate Publisher: 386
RUDWICK, J.S.M. (1992): Scenes From Deep Time – Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago – London: 280

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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