Nautilus

How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur

The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the dig site to the naturalist’s study and the museum’s preparation lab. The mounted skeletons that have become such a staple of natural history museums most closely resemble mixed media sculptures, having been cobbled together from a large number of disparate elements that include plaster, steel, and paint, in addition to fossilized bone. When standing before one of these towering creatures, such as the T. rex skeleton named Sue in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, it is surprisingly difficult to distinguish which features are ancient and which ones are modern, where prehistory ends and imagination begins.

If dinosaurs in museums are chimeras, their prehistoric antecedents are unobservable entities. In this respect, dinosaurs resemble subatomic particles like electrons, neutrons, and positrons. Both are inaccessible to direct observation, but for different reasons. Whereas subatomic particles are too small to be seen, dinosaurs are too old. And in both cases, scientists gain access to their objects of study by interpreting the effects they produce: Electrons leave characteristic marks on a photographic emulsion as they pass through a cloud chamber, and dinosaurs supply us with clues to their former existence in the form of fossilized bones.

But dinosaurs are unlike electrons in a number of important ways. For one thing, dinosaurs cannot be experimented upon. Instead, scientists have to interpret the fossil record, which is spotty at best. The first dinosaur discoveries consisted of only a few bones and a handful of teeth. Before long, more complete skeletons began to be found, but the individual pieces were usually scattered about in a jumbled mess of material. Often, they had also been crushed and distorted by the immense pressures at work during and after the process of fossilization. For that reason, paleontologists had to work hard to assemble dinosaurs into something that resembled real, live animals. In doing so, they relied not only on the available evidence, but also on inference, judgment, and their imagination.

WHEN DINOSAURS RULED: Fearing a backlash to their corporate might, America’s industrial tycoons became avid philanthropists to uplift and educate working people, establishing universities, art galleries, and natural history museums, with their prized possessions, dinosaurs.Everett Historical / Shutterstock

Because dinosaurs are in part

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