What's Behind Our Dinomania?

There are few things that capture our collective imagination like dinosaurs. Ever since humans have understood that these giants walked this same Earth, we've been smitten. But why?

Remember, in the big picture, our knowledge of dinosaurs existence is relatively recent. It was less than 200 years ago that dinosaurs were "discovered." Think of it: Our understanding of how this world works is built on only couple hundred years of science. Then, in a moment, someone discovers that giant, mysterious beasts roamed this same earth. Sure, we humans began had been digging up massive massive fossils for centuries, but nobody quite knew what to make of them. Were they bones and teeth from larger versions of known animals, or something else altogether?

It was 1842 when the British scientist Sir Richard Owen realized the fossils he found belonged to a distinct taxonomic group. He subsequently coined the term "Dinosauria," meaning "terrible lizard."

In the following years, there was something of a gold rush for dinosaur fossils around the globe. Famously, here in the United States during the late 1800s, two famous paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh both engaged in recklessly underhanded efforts to discover as many dinosaur fossils as possible in the Rocky Mountain states.

Their blistering rivalry was known as the Bone Wars. Both men came to personal and financial ruin but, though they may have destroyed as many fossils as they found, boxes of unopened clues remained after their death. These finds helped launch a new generation of dinosaur scholars.

The Guardian asks the question, “But why dinomania? Why not fossil mammal fandom or a craze for critters from the Cambrian period? The standard pop-psychology answer is that dinosaurs are big, fierce and extinct. This makes them suitably impressive, but safe to approach. There’s no risk of Allosaurus snaffling up kids who lean over the barriers at the Natural History Museum.”

The debate of why dinosaurs appeal so much to us continues to be examined. Just in the last few years, publications as august as Wired and the New York Times continue to ask the question.

Over the past century, we have come to know so much more about these "terrible lizards" and humanity’s fascination has shown no signs of slowing. The Bone Wars and similar dinosaur quests captured the imagination of the world and soon these newly discovered creatures became as prevalent in popular culture as they are in the halls of academia.

For instance, before the turn of 20th century, Charles R. Knight began making a name for himself as the foremost "paleoartist" of his time (a term popularized in the 1980s to describe an artist who theorized what dinosaurs looked like, based on the knowledge they had at the time). Working largely with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Knight’s countless paintings, watercolors, murals and illustrations became the standard for years. It is almost impossible you haven't seen his work.

It’s no surprise, people wanted more — especially given that new forms of media were just beginning to take off. It wouldn't be long for dinosaurs to appear on stage, and soon thereafter, on the silver screen. As we detailed in a recent post, animator Winsor McCay was wowing Vaudeville audiences in 1914 with his animation of "Gertie the Dinosaur," which was both one of the first animated short films ever and certainly the first featuring a dinosaur.

In 1925, The Lost World was released, based on the 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle novel about a professor who is searching for a region in South America where dinosaurs may still exist. The film was a sensation, largely thanks to the stop-motion special effects created by Willis O'Brien, who, in 1933, created an iconic version of King Kong.


We could go on and on. There are the groundbreaking "Dynamation" dinosaur models of Ray Harryhausen, who all but perfected stop-motion animation from the 1940s through the 60s, evidenced in the films 1 Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi.

The 1950s were also the beginning of the countless Godzilla films and their spin-offs. It also launched the debate: Godzilla isn’t quite a dinosaur, or is he? For kids, there's Sid and Marty Krofft's prehistoric hallucination, the '70s-era children's television program Land of the Lost.


A little later the purple prepubescent hallucination that is Barney started singing. Dinosaurs singing even scored position #4 on the DW list: 10 Reasons We Love Dinosaurs. And, don't even get us started on the Jurassic Park franchise!

All this is to say, dinosaurs have an uncommon hold on our imagination and these terrible lizards haven’t shown any sign of since Sir Richard Owen coined the term less than 200 years ago.

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