Dinosaurs were in ample supply when I was a kid. There were enough documentaries, cartoons, books, trading cards, and misshapen plastic toys to keep me occupied for all my days. They were the ultimate brand; freely available to be printed on anything by anyone, and they most certainly were. (Why eat just any cereal when you can eat dinosaur-shaped cereal?) This prehistoric popularity is so widespread that it is not unusual for children to go through a “dinosaur phase,” in which they master Greek & Latin terminology and admonish their parents that no one really uses the name “Brontosaurus” anymore.
Although it is generally said that most children grow out of their affection for dinosaurs, the ancient creatures pervade our culture. They are instantly recognizable animals, and while childhood fixation on mastering the pronunciation of Pachycephalosaurus might be somewhat embarrassing to some, the prevalence of dinosaurs in our culture proves that we really do love the monstrous creatures.
The Dinomania you and I know is only the most recent incarnation of the trend. It appears that dinosaurs did not always enjoy the popularity they do today, going through a sort of slump in the middle of the 20th century.* Yet when they were first discovered, preshistoric reptiles were immensely popular. They were not just obscure creates bound to geology books and scientific societies; they were “antediluvian” celebrities.
*[I generally think of the period between 1890 and 1969 as the “lost years” of paleontology. Research continued, of course, but the time between the public feud between O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope and the 2nd “Dinosaur Renaissance” is a bit of a blank. Then again, it may just appear that there was a slump because that period was neither close to the development of paleontology or the revitalization of dinosaur paleontology, and is often ignored. Either way, this large stretch of time is ripe with opportunities for historians of science.]
If we are to get a handle on the popularity of dinosaurs in the 19th century, it must first be realized that the word dinosaur was not coined by Richard Owen until 1842, nearly two decades after some of the first well-known dinosaurian remains were discovered. Searching literature for the name Megalosaurus is much more useful, for people were talking about it for years before “dinosaur” came into use. Google Books makes this task easy; with ease I searched for all the uploaded material for mentions of the word Megalosaurus between 1824 and 1874, many of which were freely available for viewing. Although some are duplicates, the search returned 704 freely-available resources, which I think is a rather substantial return.
The type of resources turned up vary. There are papers presented before learned societies, entries from cheap encyclopedias, children’s books, books on geology, zoological catechisms, sermons, magazine articles, and poetry. While technical & semi-technical works focusing on geology are the most prevalent, from the results obtained it appears that Megalosaurus (and similar ancient “saurians”) had a substantial public presence. Different authors, however, focused on different aspects of the animals.
For scientists, Megalosaurus primarily represented a type of gigantic animal that had lived and perished long before humans appeared on Earth. It was first interpreted as being similar to a gigantic crocodile, occupying the “muddy lagoons and alluvial flats” of the ancient world. This particular vision was given life at the Crystal Palace Exhibition; a “cantankerous” animal that “hobbled” about in search of prey.
Later, after the first “Dinosaur Renaissance” which was spurred by the discovery of the bipedal dinosaurs Hadrosaurus and “Laelaps” (now Dryptosaurus) from New Jersey, Megalosaurus received a bit of an overhaul. While surveying some ancient reptiles, John William Dawson described catching sight of a one such predatory dinosaur in his The Story of Earth and Man (1873);
But another and more dreadful form rises before us. It is Megalosaurus or perhaps Laelaps. Here we have a creature of equally gigantic size and biped habits ; but it is much more agile, and runs with great swiftness or advances by huge leaps, and its feet and hands are armed with strong curved claws ; while its mouth has a formidable armature of sharp-edged and pointed teeth. It is a type of a group of biped bird-like lizards, the most terrible and formidable of rapacious animals that the earth has ever seen. Some of these creatures, in their short deep jaws and heads, resembled the great carnivorous mammals of modern times, while all in the structure of their limbs had a strange and grotesque resemblance to the birds. Nearly all naturalists regard them as reptiles ; but in their circulation and respiration they must have approached to the mammalia, and their general habit of body recalls that of the kangaroos. They were no doubt oviparous ; and this, with their biped habit, seems to explain the strong resemblance of their hind quarters to those of birds. Had we seen the eagle-clawed Laelaps rushing on his prey; throwing his huge bulk perhaps thirty feet through the air, and crushing to the earth under his gigantic talons some feebler Hadrosaur, we should have shudderingly preferred the companionship of modern wolves and tigers to that of those savage and gigantic monsters of the Mesozoic.
Perhaps it had become known to naturalists first, but Megalosaurus was well-known enough to receive mention in various popular mediums. In a satirical piece on college entrance exams written in Punch, a fictional college candidate lamented;
I have been a month reading for the next Staff College Entrance Examination, but the subjects are so numerous that I am quite bewildered, and want you to advise me what to do. The following is the style of information I have already succeeded in picking up : — “The Angle A is a right angle, and equal to ninety degrees of Fahrenheit, measured on a scale showing a hundred and twenty-seven Spanish kilometres to the square inch, multiplied by twice xy into the cube root of the ravelin in Connontaigne’s fifteenth system, divided by decimal 000000 of a megalosaurus [emphasis mine], completely upset the calculations of ARCHDUKE CHARLES, who, with his army in a highly spheroidal state, was endeavouring, at Marengo, on the Northern frontier of Spain, to turn the flank of the Old Red Sandstone dissolved in bi-proto-carburetted hydrogen ; the sandstone escapes, and the hydrogen forms a military road across Mont Cenis, at a distance from Wellington’s head-quarters, and three aneroid barometers, doing as much work as seventeen tailors working twenty-six hours a day, and protected by troux de loup from the vertical fire of three sapgabions ranged along the shoulder angle of a plane of defilade erected on the hachure of a rhombic dodecahedron.
Likewise, in the story “The Taillefer Bell-Ringings” that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869, the weight of one particular character was said to have been so heavy that “his weight would have crushed the toes of a megalosaurus.” A stranger allusion is made in the strange book Ostrea Or, the Loves of the Oysters, which envisions a male oyster reassuring his mate when the dinosaur came looking for a shellfish snack;
Say, in thy nonage, didst thou not have
Some shell-fish she, by tender tie endeared,
To share thy mud, and pull thy downy beard ? —
Her love to cherish, and to calm her fear
When MEGALOSAURUS fierce came rather near ;
Or when GALUMPUS, monarch of the main,
Loud bellowing, shook afar the watery plain !
Or COL-LOS-SOCH-E-LYS, grim giant of the shore,
Lashed out his tail, and gave his morning roar
(Megalosaurus was also mentioned in a bit of social commentary, and it would be interesting to see if there are further connections between the image of dinosaurs and industry.)
Of special interest, however, is the reaction of religious authorities to Megalosaurus and similar animals. Rather than depicting them as a threat to theological doctrines, dinosaurs were crammed into existing ideological frameworks, and they were seen as creatures that illustrated the chosen course of Creation. The Church of England magazine devoted considerable time to fossils in an 1844 article, in which Megalosaurus was interpreted as being a sign of Providence for the speed with which it could kill its prey. Carnivorous animals, it was said, were a gift from God; they killed quickly and efficiently, and none was more adept at swiftly dealing death that the carnivorous dinosaur.
More often it was said that the geologic record complimented the tempo and mode of creation in Genesis (albeit over long ages, for many duly recognized that the creation of the world in a literal week was not well-supported). A bit of uncertainty helped with this interpretation; Megalosaurus was a “creeping thing,” some early sauropod bones were thought to belong to a whale-like animal (which still bears the name Cetiosaurus), and dinosaur tracks from Triassic rocks were thought to have been made by birds. This seemed to accord with the 5th day of Creation. (Some even interpreted Megalosaurus as a “connecting form” in the Great Chain of Being, filling up the world so that there would be no gaps between the distinct created varieties of life.)
In the 19th century, the meaning of dinosaurs were varied and mutable. They were scientific curiosities, terrible monsters, dragons, proof of the Bible’s veracity, and cultural celebrities all in one. The way they are perceived has changed in major ways since they were first discovered (with some interesting convergences), but they remain a major part of popular culture today. I suspect they will for some time to come. They are our most favorite monsters, and the more we learn about them the more fascinating they become.