Barnum Brown’s Paleo Pick

Does “Mr. Bones” really deserve credit for inventing an essential field tool?

Barnum Brown, showing off his paleo pick in an August 1932 Popular Science
Barnum Brown, showing off his paleo pick in an August 1932 Popular Science Image courtesy of Palaeoblog

Barnum Brown was one of the top dinosaur hunters of all time. His nickname was “Mr. Bones,” after all, and according to the paleontological apocrypha surrounding the man, he was so skilled at finding fossils that some joked that he could smell bones. What I didn’t know, though, is that Brown also promoted a pick specially designed for dinosaur hunting.

A good pick is an essential part of the field paleontologist’s arsenal. (Though today Estwing rock hammers are more common.) According to a short Popular Science article published in 1932, Brown found that “no tools on the market quite satisfied needs,” so he created one. The pick had a thin, pointed end and a wider, flatter end on the other side of the head.

But Brown didn’t actually invent the pick, and certainly wasn’t the first to use it. Matthew at The Prep Lounge explains that dinosaur picks had been used by paleontologists for decades, and the tool’s connection to the Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh led them to be called “Marsh picks.” Brown probably just made a slight modification and the newspaper went with a slightly more hyperbolic presentation. “Paleontologist makes small improvement to traditional tool” isn’t exactly an attention-grabbing headline.

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