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Dinosaurs as a Cultural Phenomenon

Keith Thomson


The key to modern dinomania may have been the discovery in 1884 of a whole herd of intact Iguanodon skeletons in a Belgian coal mine. Two years later, Camille Flammarion's popular book on Earth history, Le Monde avant la Création de l'Homme (or The World Before the Creation of Man), showed an Iguanodon in a theatrical pose: taking a meal from the "fifth floor" of a Paris apartment building (in France, the ground floor is the unnumbered rez-de-chaussee). Even so, it took a while for this sort of dramatic depiction of dinosaurs to catch on in the USA, until American newspapers followed in 1897 (American Century) and 1898 (New York World and Advertiser) with similar depictions of the far larger Brontosaurus against a backdrop of skyscrapers. The reception given to these fantastic images firmly established the potential of dinosaurs to capture public interest.

Cope suffered financial ruin later in life and sold his private collection to the American Museum of Natural History in 1895. The museum's director, Henry Fairfield Osborn (himself a paleontologist), made the dinosaurs a showcase attraction. The AMNH sent out Barnum Brown's 1902 expedition that bagged the first Tyrannosaurus rex. In the 1920s and '30s the museum sent a series of expeditions (not forgetting the movie cameras) to the Gobi Desert, led by the dashing Roy Chapman Andrews (the prototype for "Indiana Jones"). The original intent had been to search for early human fossils, but instead they made startling discoveries of horned dinosaurs and nests with eggs still inside. Not to be outdone, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, with the financial backing of its eponymous founder, launched major efforts of its own, followed in turn by the other major museums, which bought specimens if they didn't mount their own expeditions.

Today the search for dinosaurs and other fossils spans the whole world, from the Arctic to Argentina, China to Greenland, Australia to Africa, and dinosaurs are big business. Publications on dinosaurs continue to multiply, from classics like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, Karel Capek's satirical War With the Newts and Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, to simple picture books. Giant fossil creatures (again mostly dinosaurs) featured centrally in Bill Watterson's classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes—no shortage of literary allusions there. The fascination may have peaked with Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1990), which began as a book but became a blockbuster movie with two sequels. These films were the first to show dinosaurs in an authentic style with realistic behaviors. Since then, the BBC has gone a great deal further in its animated TV series Walking with Dinosaurs. In books, films, television, toys, computer games, newspapers and magazines—whatever is current—dinosaurs sell.

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