In the belly of the beast

On New Years Eve in 1853, the famous scientist Richard Owen and 21 invited guests, the cream of Victorian English science and letters, gathered for a dinner, laid out for them inside a giant dinosaur. 

Actually, only 11 of them fit into the half-finished sculpture of an iguanodon, the rest sat at tables around the monster. At the head of the interior table, inside the skull of the beast, sat Owen, presiding over the affair well into the early hours of 1854. 

The menu was astounding

It was all a publicity stunt, promoting both the creation of a series of dinosaur sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, but even more importantly, promoting Owen, a notorious publicity hound. 

Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins

The iguanodon statue/dining hall was part of a huge project Hawkins was involved in, to create life-size models of 33 different dinosaurs, to be exhibited on the grounds of the newly relocated Crystal Palace Park just outside London. The Palace was taken apart and moved at the end of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations held in the summer of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. The Exhibition was a kind of Worlds’ Fair, and the palace, made of glass and steel, was a wonder of architecture and although originally slated for demolition at the end of the exhibition, it was instead rebuilt in Sydenham Hill, south of the River Thames and made the centerpiece of a new park. (The Crystal Palace itself  burned down in 1936; the park is still there.) 

The creation of the new park was a hugely expensive operation, and with money always short, Hawkins’ plan for the 33 dinosaurs was cut back, but he still managed at least 25 of them — which are still there today, after having been restored several times in recent years. 

Hawkins’ sculpture, then and now

The iguanodon in which the banquet was given was a vast project itself. Hawkins wrote of it: 

“In the instance of the Iguanodon [it] is not less than building a house upon four columns, as the quantities of material 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.”

The dinner kicked off a veritable Victorian dino-craze. and various scientists and amateurs went around the geology of England with pick and hammer trying to unearth new fossils. 

Actually, interest had already been going on for a few eager bone hunters. In 1824, bits of a Megalosaurus was found; in 1833, a Hylacosaurus; in 1836, the first dinosaur footprints. But after that, it was an explosion: in 1856, the Trachodon; in ensuing years, the Hadrosaur, Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, Bronto- and Stegosauruses; and, by the end of the century, Triceratops and Diplodocus. Jackpot came in 1902 with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

That branch of science we call paleontology hit its first stride in England beginning in the early 1800s, when the first dinosaur fossils were recognized and begun to be classified. It began in 1822, in Cuckfield, West Sussex, when a doctor from Lewes named Gideon Mantell — or his wife, Mary Ann (stories vary) — discovered a fossil tooth of a prehistoric beast they named “Iguanodon,” based on supposed similarities between the fossil tooth and the teeth of iguanas. It set off a fad for bone-hunting, and soon more fossils were excavated, and in 1834, a pile of bones were dug from a quarry in Maidstone, about 30 miles east of London. Mantell acquired the pile and attempted to reconstruct his iguanodon from the bits. His initial drawing looked something rather like a giant squirrel. 

Mantell’s bones and his drawing of recreation

In the bones was a horn, which Mantell assumed was like a rhinoceros horn or that of his iguana. And so he drew it on the nose. 

 In 1842, it was Owen who coined the word “dinosaur” for the recent finds. He attempted a more accurate reconstruction of the iguanodon and came up with a reptilian rhino, horn still on nose. It was Owen’s version that Hawkins attempted to replicate. 

The year after the dinner in the belly of the beast, Samuel Beckles found giant three-toed footprint fossils in the Isle of Wight. He later discovered the hind limb of an iguanodon and the foot matched the prints, and so it was decided that the iguanodon was not a four-legged rhino-reptile, but stood like a kangaroo, on its hind legs. This completely revamped thinking about the beast, and for the next hundred years, iguanodon rather mimicked Godzilla. 

Then, in 1878, a whole herd of iguanodon fossils were discovered in a coal mine in Bernissart, Belgium. These confirmed that Iggy’s back legs were longer than his front, and so confirmed (so they thought) the upright posture. More importantly, the horn no longer fit the nose, but turned out to be the thumbs of the dinosaur, held firmly in the perpetual position of the hitchhiker. In 1895, the British Museum of Natural History acquired an iguanodon skeleton and assembled the pieces into its kangaroo pose that held up for a century. 

This was, of course, the version most of us grew up with. Upright, tail-dragging like a Piper Cub, and with his spikes giving us the “Thumbs-up” gesture. But in the 1990s, closer study of the fossil skeletons, reexamined with newer methods and anatomical knowledge, changed things once again. The iguanodon was set back on four legs once more, although allowing him to rotate upwards on his back legs occasionally to reach food. And it turns out the the vertebrae and their attending tendons were stiff, and the iguanodon tail did not drag, but, more like the cat wagging its tail to announce its mood, held out stiffly backwards and in the air.

So, Owen had been right, although for the wrong reasons. 

So much of what we now surmise about the dinosaurs has changed in the past 40 years. Not only the cat-tails lashing about in the air, but the warm blood of at least some of them, and the possibility — even probability of feathers, and the realization that dinosaurs are closer to being birds than reptiles. 

You have to wonder what the future holds out for the iguanodon. The future constantly reinvents the past. It is the heart of science to do so. The sun used to revolve around the earth; then it didn’t. Atoms were the smallest particles of matter until protons, neutrons and electrons were found and then until quarks were posited, and now we wonder about string theory. Maybe no particles at all, just vibrations. 

When I was a boy in my astronomy phase, there was a viable argument between Fred Hoyle’s “Steady State” theory of the expanding cosmos, and the newer “Big Bang” theory. The expanding universe found by Edwin Hubble shouldered out any idea we could have had of the static cosmos that had held sway for millennia. New discoveries and reformulated conceptions have pushed science ahead, sometimes by inches, sometimes by light years. 

Hawkins’ dinosaurs under construction 1855

The continents were rock solid until they started floating around the world like barges. Plagues were caused by “bad air,” until bacteria and viruses were discovered. Phlogiston was the substance of fires before the role of oxygen was understood. 

The dino park today

Sometimes the changes circle back on themselves, like the once-again four-legged iguanodon. In the ancient and Medieval worlds, moods were controlled by the four humors. Psychology gave up on such things and went Freudian, and now, neuroscientists have rediscovered brain chemistry — really the humors updated and modernized. 

The people who created these theories and ideas were not stupid. We should not hold ourselves superior to them. They were working with the data available and were often quite ingenious. The math behind the Ptolemaic system is absolutely brilliant, and as complex as anything on a blackboard at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 

“Despite the fact that later evidence proved these theories wrong, I don’t think we should say the scientists involved made mistakes,” wrote Peter Vickers, professor of the philosophy of science at England’s Durham University. “They followed the evidence and that is precisely what a good scientist should do.”

Dinosaurs when I grew up

It’s a constant plod, one foot in front of the other. Mantell knew this when he first tried to understand the iguanodon in the 1820s. 

He wrote: “Imperfect as are the materials at present, they will be found to possess sufficient interest to incite further and more successful investigation that may supply the deficiencies which exist in our knowledge.”

And so, dinosaurs now have feathers, like Quetzalcoatl.

This is one of the glories of science — the willingness to be wrong when a more complete idea is proved. The entire world progresses because of this humility. We must leave it to the flat-earth people and anti-vaxers to be so damn certain they are right. Every step in the history of science is provisional. That is why the safest bet is to cast our lot with those who practice it.

  1. I grew up fascinated by dinosaurs, largely because we had a big book with a number of photos from that famous mural, Rudolph F. Zallinger’s “The Age of Reptiles,” in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History that you posted here. That always brings back lots of memories!

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