Nowadays it’s regularly remarked that people think all prehistoric animals are dinosaurs. The flying Pteranodon? Dinosaur. The aquatic Ichthyosaurus? Dinosaur. Mammuthus primigenius – or rather the woolly mammoth? Dinosaur. Whatever we make of palaeontological illiteracy, it’s undeniable that in this century and for much of the previous one dinosaurs have enjoyed a celebrity far surpassing that of their extinct comrades. Although there are fascinating stories about the lives and times of other groups of prehistoric animals, dinosaurs reign supreme in media and museums.
It was not always so. ‘Dinosaur’ was coined in 1842 by anatomist Richard Owen, later the founder of the Natural History Museum in London. Owen brought together under one umbrella three mysterious reptiles, known from fragmentary fossil remains in Britain. Most of his colleagues, however, found the label uninteresting at best. From the sparse available remains, dinosaurs seemed to have been giant lizards. Curious enough, but palaeontologists had far better specimens of much weirder creatures, like the Plesiosaurus, discovered by Mary Anning and then commonly referred to as a snake threaded through a turtle. Owen’s term was often ignored, even by scientific researchers, and dinosaurs were lumped together with other ‘saurians’ like Plesiosaurus or the famous pterodactyl. Prehistoric animals in general fascinated the nineteenth-century public, appearing in fiction, poetry, magic lantern lectures, panoramas, and as huge models at the 1854 Crystal Palace. But if you had asked a visitor at the Crystal Palace what their favourite dinosaur was, you would have received a blank stare.
My book tracks the transition from this state of affairs to one much closer to that of our own times. Scholars have typically seen the rise of the dinosaur as paralleling the rise of the big American natural history museums. After all, rapacious westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century enabled American palaeontologists to excavate the most famous dinosaurs, including Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and Ceratosaurus. These made clear that dinosaurs were far more diverse and distinct than Owen had envisioned. From the beginning of the twentieth century, spectacular specimens began to fill galleries funded by ultra-rich industrialists and quickly became film stars.
These were crucial developments, but the final decades of the nineteenth century contain a fascinating and, to my eyes, underappreciated story: the story of how popular science writers and authors of fiction mediated the dinosaur’s shift from British lizard to multiform American monster. In the 1880s and 1890s, before the openings of the grand American dinosaur galleries, these animals lived largely on the page, and their meaning was explored by a range of writers, many of them British rather than American, and most of them not professional palaeontologists. We have, for instance, Henry Neville Hutchinson, an independent-minded British science journalist whose book Extinct Monsters (1892) was perhaps the first serious attempt to make dinosaur a household word on both sides of the Atlantic. Or we have Frank Savile’s novel Beyond the Great South Wall (1899), which depicted Brontosaurus as carnivorous and the possessor of hypnotic powers.
Literature at the end of the century played a vital role in making dinosaurs famous, placing these animals into some very recognisable narratives (as well as some decidedly fin-de-siècle ones in the case of Savile’s Svengali-like sauropod). For instance, dinosaurs started to epitomise evolutionary failure, their gigantic bodies compared by Grant Allen to Lewis Carroll’s notoriously grotesque (but ultimately fragile) Jabberwock. In early American science fiction works like J. J. Astor IV’s bombastic A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), dinosaurs were used to think through imperial identity, representing earlier stages in the country’s inevitable upward progress and spiritual expansion. For authors of British popular fiction at the height of Empire, however, they could be a more worrying symbol of how evolution did not always lead to progress, but could instead end in decadence and extinction. In works like these and many more, the dinosaurs started to seem like an extremely relevant moment in the history of life on Earth, and certainly the most spectacular – a reputation that continues to this day.