In 1842 a Victorian anatomist looked at some unusual fossils and, noticing they had something in common, he decided we needed a word to describe these strange creatures. He called them dinosaurs.
Cut to the present day and there are dinosaur films, TV shows, books, songs, toys, and anything else you can possibly think of. Dinosaurs are beloved by children across the world, they form the centrepieces of internationally renowned museums, and there is nobody who doesn’t have an idea of what a dinosaur looks like.
How did we get here?
Episode 25 of Words To That Effect draws together science and fiction, palaeontology and children’s pyjamas, Jurassic Park and Gertie the Dinosaur, to explore dinosaurs in fiction and the cultural history of dinosaurs.
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) , dir. Winsor McCay
Arthur Conan Doyle The
Lost World (1912)
The Lost World (1925) , dir. Harry O. Hoyt
Charles Dickens Bleak House (1852)
Frank Savile Beyond the Great South Wall (1899)
King Kong (1933), dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
(1993), dir. Steven Spielberg
Natural History Museum, London
Dr Will Tattersdill is Senior Lecturer in Popular Literature at the University of Birmingham. You can find more about his work and publications here.
I would highly recommend his book on Science, Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press, which you can buy on Amazon here
Paddy Mulcahy – listen to more here
3epkano – listen to more here
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Evil Plan” (Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Sounds Effect (from Freesound.org)
https://freesound.org/s/401909/ “Risky 1P60b”
https://freesound.org/s/177105/ “Dino Stomp”
Aulladores – Howler monkeys”
https://freesound.org/s/368389/ “Waves On Brighton Beach”
Words To That Effect is a part of the wonderful Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out the network for podcasts on everything from film to politics, food, literature, comedy, and more.
You can also read about all things podcast at Headstuff’s dedicated podcast section, PodStuff. There’s news, reviews, interviews, discussion, guides for podcasters and plenty of podcast recommendations.
Want more Victorian science? Check out this episode on Victorian spiritualism, or this one on Criminology.
More on icons of popular culture? How about an episode on zombies?
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
I was trying to find the book that I was certain must
already have been written – about dinosaurs in fiction and what they’re for
Tyrannosaurus. And what colour are
dinosaurs? Yellow and blue and red. Ah
It’s a very big and complicated story
It’s not nice if someone calls you a dinosaur they’re not
being nice to you – they mean you are set in your ways, that your views are
What does the dinosaur say? RAAAA!
To understand the dinosaur properly you have to try to
understand cinema and art history and history and palaeontology and archaeology
are you listening to me? Dinosaur??
They are always complicated, even the ones in trashy
a real dinosaur, can you talk?
These are the thoughts of my 3-year-old son on the important
topic of dinosaurs. And, more coherently, those of Dr Will Tattersdill, , who
is currently undertaking a major research project on dinosaurs in literature
I’m Will Tattersdill, I’m senior lecturer in popular lit at
the Uni of Birmingham in the UK and I’m writing a book about dinosaurs in scientific
and popular culture from 1850 to the present day
So, why is my son
so fascinated with dinosaurs? Why are children’s songs and TV shows and films
and books and toys and duvets and clothes all populated with dinosaurs?
How, I want to know, did we get from a Victorian anatomist
looking at some unusual fossils in 1842 to dinosaur pyjamas for toddlers?
Well the history of dinosaurs has always been about science
and storytelling. You can’t have a dinosaur without the science. But scientists
can’t tell their story, create and illustrate and imagine dinosaurs without art
And each generation of scientists and artists, writers, and
filmmakers, makes dinosaurs perform different cultural work.
After all, as Dr Tattersdill points out, without science and literature, there is no dinosaur:
They are to my mind one of the best ways of thinking about the
relationship literature and science – you can’t have a dinosaur until you’ve
got both a very professionalised scientific environment in which a fossil can
be created and discovered and understood.
But you also need a professionalised cultural imaginary, a
mass readership, that popular environemnt
of fantasy so that people can sustain those images. So I think without
literature and science there’s no dinosaur .
But the story of dinosaurs is also one about time.
Our conception of dinosaurs.
Our conception of previous generations’ conception of
And then of course there’s the dinosaurs themselves, in
their own time. A time so unimaginably, inconceivably distant from our own,
that it’s often impossible to do anything but
see ourselves and our world in them.
Dinosaurs are for children. But, of course, that’s kind of
absurd when you think about it.
Dinosaurs are monsters. But quite obviously they’re not.
They really existed.
Dinosaurs are, in many ways – and in many B movies –
essentially aliens. Except they are from our own planet.
Dinosaurs are alive, vividly depicted in all our
imaginations: their distinct colours, the sounds they make, what they eat, how
Except, of course, that nobody – nobody – has ever seen a dinosaur.
So, let’s go back to the beginning.
Part 1: History
Before you can start thinking about dinosaurs, you have to
live in a time which understands that creatures can become extinct. That the
world is not a place where every
creature that has existed, has always existed, and will always exist.
And, at the beginning of the 19th century, this
is something that the French naturalist Baron Cuvier conclusively proved for
the first time.
It’s astonishing to us now that someone had to come up with the
thought. I find it mind blowing to put myself in a community of though where
there’s no extinction. Once you’ve got extinction, these things that were coming
out of the earth – had been known about for centuries, millennia in fact – but
had been thought of in various different ways by people, became known as
fossils. Most of them are not what we’d now call dinosaurs -there’s fossil mammals,
mammoth in particular, fossil fish and sea creatures, sharks in particular.
In the collection of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford there’s
a lower jaw that’s quite interesting, its’ got some big horrible teeth on it,
no one quite knows where it came from, it seems to be from Oxfordshire. And a
chap called William Buckland, very famous geologist of the day, gives this
thing the name Megalosaurus, with Cuvier’s blessing, in 1824.
At this stage, though, the word dinosaur didn’t yet exist.
It would take another scientist to start joining the dots.
If, in the last decade, you’ve been to the amazing Natural
History Museum in London, you’ve probably seen the grand, white marble statue
of Darwin. It’s at centre of the staircase in the huge, cathedral-like entrance
hall. What you may have not have realised is that this statue was only placed
here in 2009 (the anniversary of Darwin’s On
The Origin of Species). And it replaced a statue of another scientist, one
who was actually a bitter rival of Darwin’s.
Richard Owen was one of the most renowned scientists of the
19th century – in any discipline. He is perhaps best remembered
today as the founder of the Natural History Museum. Hence the statue.
…but decades before that he was an anatomist working at
Royal College of Surgeons. He takes Buckland’s Megalosaur and puts it with two
other fossils known at that time – the Iguanodon of Gideon Mantell, and another
animal called Hyleosaurus (sadly neglected now, in popular culture at least) – and
he notices something that these animals have in common and he says we need a
word to describe these things, and that’s dinosaur.
So, for the first time, in January 1842, dinosaurs come into
existence. Except, of course, they’d been dead for 65 million years.
And this is the beginning of our complicated relationship
with time, when you start talking about dinosaurs.
We are dealing simultaneously with a human history and a
deep time, natural history. We’re slipping between these two things so quickly
that it’s almost seamless, it’s almost impossible to tell when I stop talking
about famous Victorian gentlemen and start talking about animals that romped
round in the Jurassic and Cretaceous of England many millennia before humanity
We humans are really bad at thinking in vast timescales. We
can handle centuries and, maybe millennia. But, geological time – eons, eras,
epochs – not so much.
One common thought experiment is to think of the earth’s
history [that’s 4.6billion years] as one, calendar year.
So, the earth forms of Jan 1.
We get the first life in late February and rocks in early
It’s mid July until we get the first cells with nuclei
And then we have to wait until early December until insects,
amphibians and reptiles finally emerge
Dinosaurs arrive on December 13, just before 9pm. Then, at
10am the next morning, mammals arrive. On 26th December, 13 days
after they arrived, the dinosaurs go extinct.
And then, finally, on Dec 31st at 11.48pm, 12
minutes before the present, homo sapiens arrive.
All of humanity has existed for 12 minutes in this year
It still completely destroys my mind to try and imagine the
amount of time were talking about here. On the scale of the history of the
earth the dinosaurs are not that long ago. Humanity is such a recent affair
that our brains are not evolved to be able comprehend time scale very
One fact that Dr Tattersdill mentioned when we were chatting
was that if you take two of the most famous dinosaurs – the Tyrannosaurus Rex
and the Stegosaurus, you are talking about completely different ages. So in
fact there is more time between the Stegosaurus and the T Rex, than between the
T Rex and us. Which really shows how much we flatten time and how
incomprehensible these timescales are.
Part 2: Back to
History (Victorian à American)
As much as it blows my mind, and the minds of my students,
to try and imagine these timescales, if you put yourself back in 1842 when the
notion of a long earth is new, when the notion of deep time is still not uncontroversial,
when there isn’t a reliable theory of evolution. When you’re habituated to
a Bibilical account of the age of earth,
trying to imagine that kind of amount of time, that number of years, it must
surely have been virtually impossible, even for specialists
So, this is the world in
which scientists in Europe and, very soon, further afield, were exploring the
exciting new area of dino sauria –
fearfully great lizards.
The idea of dinosaurs soon entered the popular imagination –
there’s a Megalosaurus on the opening page of Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, for example:
However, it would be decades until the word dinosaur was actually popularised. They were called saurian,
or simply monsters, or sometimes dragons (not that people confused them with
dragons but this just a word that was often used for them).
It was towards the end of the century that they started to
more widely appear
It really takes the fin de siècle for it to take off – the rise
of Boys Novel, Imperial Gothic, the new romance, Stevenson, Haggard, that whole
gang. Even then the number of outright dinosaur stories is still quite small
There’s an amazing novel called Beyond the Great South Wall – has an evil hypnotic brontosaurus
ruling the south pole – that’s pretty good that’s in the 1890s .
but really it was the 20th century when things
began to change:
what happens is the
giant, charismatic sauropods discovered in US (the enormous longnecked
dinosaurs – the brachiosaurus, the diplodocus)-
skeletons start being assembled in museums – 1905 brontosaurs in the Peabody
Museum and Dippy goes up in the Nat History Museum. So people start seeing them
as assemblages in museums which they weren’t before
The Peabody Museum, which is in Yale University, was founded
by George Peabody, at the urging of his nephew, palaeontologist Othniel Charles
Marsh. Marsh was at the centre of numerous huge dinosaur discoveries in North
America, in what became known as the Bone Wars or the Bone Rush
The 1870s and 80s sometimes still called the “bone rush” to
parallel with the gold rush and that’s period during which Am palaeontologist in
particular – very famously two called Othniel Charles Marsh & Edward
Drinker Cope – fantastic names – 2 guys who couldn’t stand each other, in their
attempts to outcompete each other frantically discover virtually every dinosaur
you’ve heard of – stegosaurus, triceratops, most of the big sauropods, you name
it. Because they are working in a hurry, trying to beat each other, they work
quite badly and a lot the mess they create is still being cleared up to this
day – it’s a horrible example of frontier science. But there’s no doubt that it
has an amazing effect on people’s imaginations
So, the centre of palaeontology shifted. From France and
then Britain, to America, following, not uncoincidentally, the centres of
global power. (Today, incidentally, all the major dinosaur finds are in China).
And, unsurprisingly, dinosaurs were used metaphorically. The
huge creatures could be powerful and naturally supreme, or they could be slow
and unwieldly, destined for extinction (although you could argue that this last
feature isn’t particularly fair given that they were around for 200 million years,
compared to our measly couple of hundred thousand).
Its not at all a coincidence that these large charismatic
animals when they are disov ered are immediately used as metaphors of American
hegemony and manifest destiny. Even before the dinosaurs Jefferson is doing it
at the start of the idea of America – he’s got his mammoth, not a dinosaur but
he’s using prehistory to say this is the America animal, this huge powerful
thing. The way this sometimes gets up in Europe as “look at these slow,
elephantine, stupid, marsh dwelling things that think they are so great”. There’s
a huge way in which it translated onto the discourses of nation and of empire.
Part 3: Movies/
So dinosaurs had a political dimension, in the way that
countries vied to create great collections, of ever bigger and more complete
specimens, held in grand museums of natural history.
The public could suddenly see these creatures in the flesh –
or at least the bone.
And they soon made their way far more extensively into pop
culture: fiction and, soon, film.
But before we delve into film, let’s take a quick break.
This podcast as I’m sure you know is part of the wonderful Headstuff Podcast
Network, and I wanted to let you hear a little about one of our other shows:
So go, listen, it’s a great show.
Now, back to this podcast.
The other thing that changes is that cinema is invented,
that’s hugely important.
That’s Will Tattersdill again
One of first animated films ever is called Gertie the
Dinosaur, by an American artist called Windsor McCkay – it’s about 12 mins
long, a vaudeville act where McKay is physically
present in the cinema, interacting with the animated Gertie.
So, one of big early films is the adaptation of Conan
Doyle’s The Lost World – the novel is
1912 and film is 1925. And that’s the team that goes on on to make King Kong – from
an animation perspective is a rehearsal for King Kong. So it’s important in its
own right but also for the precedent it sets in special effects
It seems to me whenever there’s a special effects revolution
needed, dinosaurs are very often what’s driving people to improve the
And then something very important happens in palaeontology
in the late 1960s and 70s which is now referred to as the dinosaur renaissance.
The emerging understanding coming out of
America, and in particular the work of John Ostrom and Robert Bakker, that
dinosaurs are not slow, cumbersome, marsh-dwelling losers. They are
behaviourally dynamic, fast, interesting, much more mammal-like creatures, warm-blooded,.
There’s a wonderful book by Adrian Desmond about this called the Hot Blooded
Once you’ve got this it’s only a matter of time before pop
culture grasps that and embraces it
And of course that moment is Jurassic Park – 1993.
I was 10 when Jurassic Park came out, the perfect age to see
really lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen for the first time. And, it wasn’t
just me. Special effects had finally got to a place where Spielberg’s dinosaurs
are convincing, not just as terrifying monsters, but as creatures that can be
dynamic and awe-inspiring, intelligent and sympathetic.
So that’s the thumbnail of 20th century. It’s a
history of the Hollywood B Movie but also a history of special effects and technical
accomplishment and of real palaeontology too.
Part 4: What
So, why the pop culture and scientific fascination? Jurassic
Park, to take just one example, has had 4 sequels. Last year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom took in
well over a billion dollars at the
box office – it’s one of the biggest grossing films of all time.
Just like with any creature in fiction or cinema – whether a
real-life animal or a mythical beast, a ghost or spirit, a terrifying monster
or a strange alien – our culture is reflected in how we talk about and portray
They are always complicated, even the ones appearing in
trashy children’s comics, or on the most budget or sub Hollywood movie
productions. The things most of us wouldn’t pay attention to or regard as
serious. Ever there the work that the dinosaur is doing is not straightforward
Because they are not monsters, even when they are deployed
as monsters. You look at Jurassic Park – they play role of monster in horror
movie. But it’s not just that because there is that sense of wonder and love
and admiration in the fabric of that movie as well. Spielberg wants you to be
scared of them but he doesn’t want you to just hate them. They are not the
other that is going to destroy you, there’s something else going on there.
They are also not aliens – not just sf outsiders come in to
teach us something or challenge us in some way
And I say those things as if monster and alien are not
themselves extraordinarily complex and capacious terms and of course they are
The dinosaur even when it’s being used as an alien or
monster it’s always doing something more
There’s always something else there. However disrespectful
the author is to the science, the idea of the science is always there somewhere
underwriting everything and that changes it, that makes it into sth different.
Then there’s the association with children. Dinosaurs it
seems we’ve decided, as a society, are for kids.
But you only have to look at the logical equivalent of that
sentence, which is to say that bats are for adults or hippos are for women. You
realise how ridiculous that statement is. Why should a huge kingdom of the
natural world be for a particular group of humans. That’s a really odd thing to
say, That’s a really odd thing to do
And this association with children, means that most people
have their own, fond childhood memories of dinosaurs. But this nostalgia for
the dinosaurs of our own childhood means that pop culture is slow to accept the
changes in scientific portrayals –
and there have been significant changes in the last few decades. Like dinosaurs
I mean, dinosaurs can’t have feathers, that’s not what they
looked like when I was growing up!
Exactly, exactly and that’s what I’m writing about – there’s
this huge drag on the acceptance of new ideas
The best analogy is Pluto, the planet or not planet, the
planetoid, that people care passionately about the removal of its planetary
status – there’s a campaign to bring it back. Why should this matter to
anybody? Yoy are never going to go there, it’s not going to play a part in your
life. It matters because it was a fact in your text book in school and you
learnt it in good faith and then someone is trying to change it out from under
you – next they’ll tell you that the earth doesn’t go around the sun – do you
know what I mean?
Which brings us back to childhood dinosaurs and my
3-year-old with his dinosaur toys and books and pyjamas. He loves them because
we, as a culture, love dinosaurs. They can be scary and roar when he wants to
fearsome or brave. But they can be soft and friendly – as cuddly toys or on his
pyjamas. He may not fully understand that they don’t exist anymore but, as far
as he’s concerned, they’re as real as crocodiles or tigers or elephants, which
is pretty reasonable.
Something that still, although it’s such a basic thing to
say, continues to give me pause, no-one has ever seen a dinosaur and no-one
ever will (a non-alien dinosaur – for any scientists listening). No one will
ever see one, and no one ever has. That will always be true and yet if you say
the word dinosaur to anyone they will
have a picture in their head, and a whole set of knowledges, immediately. And those pictures won’t match but they’ll all
be recognisable. It’s just remarkable, it’s completely amazing
It is amazing.
Dinosaurs can be monstrous but they’re not monsters, they’re alive but long
dead, part of a recent human history of science, but also of a vast geological
timescale we can never fully comprehend. An area of groundbreaking scientific
research, an icon of popular culture, and a topic of endless childhood
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect,
thanks so much for listening.
It’s great to be back making new episodes. And if you got in
touch with the show over the last few months, thanks so much. I’ve had some
great suggestion for topics and several people demanding more episodes – which
is always good to hear, so thank you.
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Links to everything, as well as pictures, notes, further
reading, and a full transcript of the show are at the Words To That Effect
website, wttepodcast.com, that wtte (as in words to that effect) podcast.com
Special thanks this week to Dr Will Tattersdill. Links are
on the website, where you can read about his work and, at some point in the
near future, buy his undoubtedly wonderful book on dinosaurs.
And, of course, thanks to my son and his dinosaur pyjamas,
which got me thinking about this whole topic.
The great music this week was by Paddy Mulcahy and 3epkano –
full details and links on the site too.
This show is part of the Headstuff Podcast Network and was
recorded in the Headstuff Studio in Dublin. For more, check out Headstuff.org
The show is back to its normal schedule so there’ll be new
episodes every second Monday.
And that’s it, I’ll see you in two weeks.