When Dinomania Swept The 1850s

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lithograph by Joseph Nash depicting the official opening of Crystal Palace.

Already, 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 on May 1st, 1851 hosted in Crystal Palace, a twenty acres large greenhouse located in the Hyde Park of central London.


Inside the 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 the famous Victorian palaeontologist Richard Owen, who supervised the zoological and botanical exhibitions, entertained guests and awarded medals to the most spectacular curiosities.

Hiding in the crowd was self-educated paleontologist Gideon Mantell, who had made his way to London despite a severe and very painful injury to the spine. He remembers in his diary that "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 also admired the collection of rocks and minerals: "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 of the same year.

It was later decided to relocate the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill, in suburb southern London, and part of the permanent park should be devoted to geology and paleontology. In the summer of 1852, Mantell, who'd discovered 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. Unfortunately, he realized that his bad health would prevent him from finishing the project and so he refused. Just some months later Mantell died from an overdose of opiates used at the time as painkillers. So under the severe examination of Richard Owen, the first models of all known giant lizards of the time, the Ichthyosaurus, the Plesiosaurus, the Pterodactyls and the dinosaurs Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylacosaurus (today referred as Hylaeosaurus) were completed.

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. - B.W. Hawkins

Owen reconstructed the Iguanodon and the other dinosaurs as large, quadruped beasts, ignoring the observations of Mantell. Mantell noted that the forelegs of the Iguanodon are smaller than the hind-legs and the animal was more likely a biped reptile. But for the time the models of Crystal Palace were the most ambitious and accurate reconstructions of extinct animals ever realized.

The life-sized models inspired the very first Dinomania. 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 published and distributed. A cartoon published in the magazine Punch in 1855 shows the unpleasant effects of all this dino-hype. An unsuspecting visitor of the Crystal Palace exhibition was haunted even in his sleep by the monstrosities emerging from the distant geological past.

"The Effects of a Hearty Dinner after Visiting the Antediluvian Department at the Crystal Palace." - Punch Magazine

Source: www.forbes.com