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When Diplodocus Invaded Europe

On July 4, 1899, the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie finally got his Diplodocus. He had set his eye on this fossil prize in the fall of the previous year when the New York Journal ran a fanciful illustration of the giant dinosaur peeping into a 10th story skyscraper window, and after some initial disa...

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The unveiling of Carnegie's Diplodocus at the British Museum in 1905. From Wikipedia.


On July 4, 1899, the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie finally got his Diplodocus. He had set his eye on this fossil prize in the fall of the previous year when the New York Journal ran a fanciful illustration of the giant dinosaur peeping into a 10th story skyscraper window, and after some initial disappointments the team of fossil hunters he underwrote finally recovered the nearly complete skeleton of what would become known as Diplodocus carnegii for the industrialist's Pittsburgh museum.

As pointed out by historian Ilja Nieuwland in the journal Endeavour, however, the discovery of Carnegie's Diplodocus by itself was not all that spectacular. The genus had already been discovered years before, and while a nearly complete skeleton was nothing to sneeze at, Carnegie's dinosaur would not become a celebrity until the industrialist began a unique publicity campaign. It started, so the story goes, when the English King Edward VII saw a sketch of the skeleton of Diplodocus in Carnegie's Skibo Castle in Scotland. The king was enthusiastic about procuring a specimen for the British Museum (today the Natural History Museum in London), and Carnegie inquired of the paleontologists in his museum if it would be possible to produce a duplicate.

Creating a plaster duplicate of the Diplodocus was no easy task, but by spring of 1905 the London museum had its dinosaur. It was an immediate sensation. Even though the museum's director, E. Ray Lankester, was frustrated that an American dinosaur was getting so much attention when there were already a number of British dinosaurs known, the response to Carnegie's Diplodocus was overwhelmingly positive, and newspapers thrilled over the strange beast with such a huge body and a small head. Nor was the British Museum the only institution to ask for a Diplodocus. Heads of state from Germany, France, and other European countries (as well as Argentina) wanted their own casts of the dinosaur, and Carnegie set his workers about preparing additional copies. (Although, in an attempt at a publicity coup, the American Museum of Natural History sent Frankfurt's Senckenberg Museum a partial Diplodocus longus skeleton before Carnegie's cast for Berlin could arrive. The AMNH donation may have dampened the public's enthusiasm for Carnegie's dinosaur, as it was not so well-received as it had been in Britain, but the reaction in France was much more enthusiastic.)

But why did Carnegie donate so many dinosaurs to so many museums? As suggested by Nieuwland, there may have been several factors at play. One of Carnegie's personal aims was to foster world peace, and if the kind gift of a dinosaur would help ease international relations, so be it. Likewise, the Diplodocus was a representation of Carnegie himself—both the dinosaur and the man were titans in their own respects—and there was hardly a more impressive way for Carnegie to promote himself than to set up his imposing namesake in as many capitals as wanted his dinosaur.

Nieuwland, I. (2010). The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European Culture, 1904–1912 Endeavour DOI: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.04.001
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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