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Reflections: The Thumb on the Dinosaur's Nose
by Robert Silverberg


Perhaps it’s only a coincidence. But something about having the World Science Fiction Convention take place in Glasgow, Scotland, seems to bring to life the fascination with dinosaurs that I’ve had, on and off, since childhood. After the first Glasgow convention in 1995 I went to nearby Edinburgh and bought a dinosaur. And last summer, just before the second Glasgow event, I visited a London park where the earliest and strangest life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs ever made have been on display for a century and a half.

I wrote about my Edinburgh dinosaur in a column called “The Dinosaur in the Living Room” that was published in this magazine in 1996. “The dinosaur,” I said then, “is a fairly small one, as dinosaurs go. I suppose it was about the size of a cat during its pre-extinct days, and not a very large cat at that. Its name is Mesosaurus brasiliensis, which is not anything I would want to call a cat. . . . As I said, not one of your truly enormous dinosaurs. Distinctly sub-brontosauran, in fact: an array of delicate and elegant reptilian-looking bones still contained in the stone slab in which their fossilization had taken place, a couple of geological epochs ago. The slab, maybe two feet by three feet by three inches, was neatly displayed in the middle of the shop window, with the usual fossil-shop array of ammonites and trilobites and such deployed around it.”

We bought it. We keep it in our living room. I’m probably not the only science fiction writer who has a dinosaur in his living room (Alan Dean Foster, what about you?), but I don’t currently know of any others.

As for last summer’s Glasgow-Dinosaur connection, it came about because I decided, finally, to visit Crystal Palace Park, a twenty-minute train ride south of London, where fabulous dinosaur models that I had known about for many years, but never seen, are to be found. The Crystal Palace was a spectacular structure of glass and iron, 1851 feet long, 456 feet wide, and 66 feet high, that was erected in London’s Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition, the first of what we now call World’s Fairs. Thirteen thousand exhibitors filled its eight hundred thousand square feet of display space with all manner of displays of arts and science. When the fair closed, the entire gigantic building was dismantled and re-erected in the London suburb of Sydenham to be the central feature of a huge amusement park. The park would also include a cricket field, a race track, a concert hall, a zoo, a boating lake—and an artificial island populated by life-sized replicas of dinosaurs.

We modern folk, familiar with dinosaurs from childhood on, accustomed to encountering them in museums and movies and theme parks and taking them pretty much for granted by now, can barely comprehend the impact that these prehistoric monsters had on the Victorian imagination. In 1854, when the new Crystal Palace Park opened to the public, the word “dinosaur” itself was only twelve years old. Giant fossilized bones had been turning up in the course of construction work ever since the Renaissance, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that naturalists realized that they belonged to some sort of colossal reptilian creatures no longer to be found on Earth. One fossil, unearthed in England in 1822, was given the name of Megalosaurus, “giant lizard.” Soon after came one that was dubbed Iguanodon, “Iguana tooth,” because of the resemblance of its teeth to those of the familiar tropical lizards. But its discoverer calculated, comparing the size of the fossil teeth to those of the living animals, that the Iguanodon must have been seventy-five to one hundred feet long.

It was already dimly apparent that these creatures had been structurally different from modern reptiles, but it remained for the British anatomist Richard Owen to show the extent of that difference. About 1840 he began a study of the bones found thus far and concluded from their pelvic structure that they must have walked upright on four legs, in contrast to existing lizards and crocodiles, whose legs extend sideways and permit only a crawling or scampering kind of motion. This difference, and their great size, Owen wrote in 1842, “will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.” That word came from the Greek deinos, “terrible,” and sauros, “lizard,” though Owen made it clear that he regarded the great beasts as belonging to a group quite separate from modern lizards.

The world’s first wave of dinosaur mania, thus touched off by Owen, brought forth from British artists a host of attempted reconstructions of the extinct monsters. Most of these were done with great care, under scientific supervision, but only a few fossilized dinosaur bones had been discovered as yet, and the drawings and paintings that resulted were wildly fanciful things that depicted the dinosaurs as gaudy dragons of a grand and glorious strangeness. (You can find reproductions of some of these wonderful early drawings in a delightful book called Scenes from Deep Time, by Martin J.S. Rudwick, which the University of Chicago Press published in 1992.)

The planners of Crystal Palace Park thought it would be a fine idea to include a dinosaur display among its attractions, and, in 1852, the sculptor and illustrator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was duly hired to create it. Waterhouse Hawkins, who had had extensive experience in scientific illustration, would work in collaboration with Richard Owen to replicate not only all known dinosaurs for the park, but also such other antediluvian creatures as mastodons, giant ground sloths, and the precursors of tapirs and camels.

He set up a workshop on the park grounds and began by making sketches and then scale models of his subjects—no simple task, even with Owen’s help, because they were working only from scattered bones, not complete skeletons. Small wonder, then, that the results were as much fantasy as science. Nevertheless the scale models took shape, and from them came the full-sized sculptures, which were built of brick and concrete over iron frames. Some of them called for thirty tons of clay. Enabling these behemoths to stand on their four legs alone, with no other props, was a formidable technical challenge. “In the instance of the Iguanodon,” Waterhouse Hawkins wrote, “[it] is not less than building a house on four columns, as the quantities of which the standing Iguanodon is composed, consist of 4 iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-round drain tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone. These, with 100 feet of iron hooping and 20 feet of cube inch bar, constitute the bones, sinews, and muscles of this large model, the largest of which there is any record of a casting being made.”

Waterhouse Hawkins’s stupendous Iguanodon was to be the centerpiece of this phenomenal stone menagerie, and accordingly it attracted much attention while it was under construction. You may wonder why this fairly obscure dinosaur and not one of the species that every small child is familiar with today was chosen as the focal point of the display, rather than such showy items as a Brontosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus, or a Stegosaurus. The answer is that those awesome beasts were all still unknown in 1852; they were not to be discovered until decades later, when such great American dinosaur hunters as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope began roaming the immense Jurassic bone-fields of Colorado and Wyoming. So it was the Iguanodon around which most of the early Crystal Palace publicity was centered.

The most ingenious stroke of promotional activity with which the Crystal Palace Company stoked public interest in the dinosaur project was a formal dinner for twenty-one scientists that took place inside the full-sized mold from which the concrete Iguanodon was to be cast. The invitation read, “Mr. B. Waterhouse Hawkins solicits the honour of Professor———’s company at dinner, in the Iguanodon, on the 31st of December, 1853, at four p.m.” A woodcut published in The Illustrated London News not long afterward brings the event to life for us: the Iguanodon mold, open along the back from the nape of the monster’s neck to the curve of its rump, is set upon a wooden platform under a cloth tent on which the names of Cuvier, Mantell, Buckland, and Owen, the scientists most prominent in the rediscovery of the dinosaurs, are inscribed. Within the mold Waterhouse Hawkins and his twenty-one guests, resplendently dressed, are seated around a long table with Owen, the only living member of that quartet of famed paleontologists, at its head. At the end of the meal, the newspaper tells us, “the usual routine of loyal toasts were duly given and responded to”—with reference being made to the “great interest evinced and approbation expressed” by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their recent visit to the site.

Another contemporary woodcut from the Illustrated London News—you’ll find it reproduced in Scenes from Deep Time—provides a picture of “The Extinct Animals Model-Room, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham.” It is a scene out of a nightmare. The Iguanodon, massive and implacable, stares straight out at the reader, with a ferociously toothy companion crouching at its side and three or four others visible in the shadows behind, while the diminutive figure of a workman below the Iguanodon provides a sense of scale.

On the day in 1854 when Queen Victoria herself opened Crystal Palace Park to the public, forty thousand people were in attendance, traveling out from London aboard special excursion trains to see these monsters of the past with their own eyes. I’ll take you on a tour of them myself in next issue’s piece, and tell you why it is that New York City’s Central Park does not have a similar exhibit created by Waterhouse Hawkins today—and I’ll also explain the meaning of the curious title at the head of this column.

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"Reflections: The Thumb on the Dinosaur's Nose" by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2006 Agberg, with permission of the author.

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