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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  History of Science & Nature

American Dinosaur Abroad A Cultural History of Carnegie's Plaster Diplodocus

By: Ilja Nieuwland(Author)
318 pages, 56 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Londoners, remember Dippy the Diplodocus? American Dinosaur Abroad is a very interesting history book that provides the backstory to this and other plaster casts, and how they were part of a philanthropic campaign by businessman Andrew Carnegie.
American Dinosaur Abroad
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  • American Dinosaur Abroad ISBN: 9780822966524 Paperback Mar 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • American Dinosaur Abroad ISBN: 9780822945574 Hardback Apr 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book

In early July 1899, an excavation team of palaeontologists sponsored by Andrew Carnegie discovered the fossil remains in Wyoming of what was then the longest and largest dinosaur on record. Named after its benefactor, the Diplodocus carnegii – or Dippy, as it's known today – was shipped to Pittsburgh and later mounted and unveiled at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1907. Carnegie's pursuit of dinosaurs in the American West and the ensuing dinomania of the late nineteenth century coincided with his broader political ambitions to establish a lasting world peace and avoid further international conflict. An ardent philanthropist and patriot, Carnegie gifted his first plaster cast of Dippy to the British Museum at the behest of King Edward VII in 1902, an impulsive diplomatic gesture that would result in the donation of at least seven reproductions to museums across Europe and Latin America over the next decade, in England, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Argentina, and Spain. In this largely untold history, Ilja Nieuwland explores the influence of Andrew Carnegie's prized skeleton on European culture through the dissemination, reception, and agency of his plaster casts, revealing much about the social, political, cultural, and scientific context of the early twentieth century.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • The interesting backstory to Dippy the Diplodocus
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Dec 2019 Written for Hardback

    If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy. Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.

    This book slots in beautifully with several recent books on the history of American palaeontology around the turn of the 19th century. Carnegie’s campaign is part of a larger story of business tycoons using dinosaur fossils to impress and I am reviewing this book back-to-back with Assembling the Dinosaur. Furthermore, this book starts off pretty much where the biography of American fossil collector John Bell Hatcher ended (see King of the Dinosaur Hunters). One of the last things Hatcher did before his death was to contribute to making the first plaster cast that Carnegie would donate.

    But let us back up a little. Who was Andrew Carnegie, and why was he handing out plaster casts of dinosaurs as if they were going out of fashion? In very short, Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, after which his family emigrated to Pennsylvania when he was 12. His career is the classic rags-to-riches story: making his fortunes first in oil and then in steel production, he rapidly became one of the world’s wealthiest people. Not content, he retired early and set off on a programme of philanthropy, funding museums, the arts, and especially libraries. He was particularly keen to resolve global conflict through the creation of an international tribunal. To that end, he mingled, and loved to be seen mingling, with politicians and royalty. Carnegie’s philanthropic activities thus served an ulterior motive.

    In 1886, Carnegie funded the building of a library in his hometown of Pittsburgh, which brought him in contact with William Jacob Holland, the chancellor of the local university. Holland urged Carnegie to think bigger and the library turned into a number of scientific institutes, including The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, headed by Holland. And this is where Diplodocus enters the story.

    The infamous Bone Wars between Cope and Marsh had at this point died down somewhat and had yielded large sauropod fossils. As also documented in Patrons of Paleontology and especially The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, a shift in power was taking place in palaeontology from individual scientists to large institutes financed by wealthy patrons such as Carnegie who used palaeontology as a public relations exercise. And Carnegie was keen to get himself one of those newfangled sauropods for his museum, to compete with displays in other museums. It was Hatcher who found and described Diplodocus carnegii (see also Bone Wars).

    A chance visit by the English king Edward VII to the Carnegie household in Scotland resulted in what Nieuwland dryly describes as “His Majesty notices a drawing”. Yes, the King would very much like one of these skeletons for the British Museum. Carnegie wasted no time and after deliberation with Holland, the latter suggested that making a cast might be more feasible than trying to find another complete specimen in the field. And while we are at it, Holland suggested, we could make multiple casts and give them to other heads of state. And so it came to pass.

    From here on Nieuwland's book proceeds largely chronologically. While the original went on display in Pittsburgh, the first cast was unveiled very successfully in London in 1903, followed over the next decades by Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico. Nieuwland goes into great detail here, mining historical archives, correspondence, and newspaper articles to reveal how these gifts were received, what the media had to say about them, and how they played into the contemporary imagination in satire, art, and journalism.

    I admit I was initially a bit sceptical about the book’s pitch: how interesting can it be to read about the history of a plaster cast? As it turns out, really interesting. Nieuwland has a knack for presenting a lively and atmospheric picture of the 19th century. His introduction sets the tone when he ruefully remarks that: “This was perhaps the last time in human history in which unfettered trust in scientific method and advances could be considered commonplace, and one in which the pursuit of scientific knowledge carried a prestige it never regained.” Rare period photographs liven up Nieuwland’s narrative further.

    The Diplodocus casts, however, are but a token in this story. It was interesting to see how subsequent unveilings went mostly little reported and hardly noticed. The Parisians, who absolutely adored “their” Diplodocus, are the exception and stand in stark contrast to the Austrians who felt the cast was almost foisted upon them. But this did not bother Carnegie in the least, they were just a means to an end. Once his requirement – that the request for a cast was publicly communicated by a head of state – was met, the actual gifting and unveiling of the cast was a formality left to Holland and his team to sort out. And even receiving heads of state were usually not present here. Partially the novelty of these donations quickly wore off, partially newer and larger fossils demanded attention (Germany, for example, unearthed large fossils in East Africa, see African Dinosaurs Unearthed).

    Similarly, the biology of Diplodocus is not the focus of this story, nor was it something that particularly interested Carnegie. Nieuwland describes his book as an “object biography”. The one episode where the science intersects with these casts was when some American palaeontologists started questioning its life reconstruction, arguing for a more reptilian, sprawling posture. This argument was enthusiastically embraced in Germany and nearly resulted in a diplomatic spat between the US and Germany over whose approach to palaeontology was superior, combining scientific with political and ideological arguments.

    American Dinosaur Abroad offers a fascinating and well-researched look into palaeontology at the turn of the 19th century, and how interest in dinosaurs reverberated, and was used, outside of scientific circles. If you have any interest in the history of palaeontology as a discipline this book shines a light on a little-known episode.
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Ilja Nieuwland is a historian of science – in particular paleontology – attached to the Huygens Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

By: Ilja Nieuwland(Author)
318 pages, 56 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Londoners, remember Dippy the Diplodocus? American Dinosaur Abroad is a very interesting history book that provides the backstory to this and other plaster casts, and how they were part of a philanthropic campaign by businessman Andrew Carnegie.
Media reviews

"American Dinosaur Abroad is brisk, fascinating, and enormously informed. The topic demands a scholar of Ilja Nieuwland's skills: he knows the languages; he understands the interplay of science, culture, politics, and the press; and he understands how, in human relations, personality is always the wild card. A must read for lovers of history and ancient bones."
– Tom Rea, author of Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie's Dinosaur

"Diplodocus is a Jurassic icon, one of the largest and most impressive dinosaurs ever uncovered. But it is not just that. In this detailed, thoughtful exploration, Ilja Nieuwland follows the changing cultural significance of this famous dinosaur in its role as ambassador, celebrity, and scientific catalyst, revealing how a single, spectacular skeleton can spur broader changes in the process of science and appreciation for nature. Read this book and you'll never look at old bones the same way again."
– Brian Switek, author of My Beloved Brontosaurus and Skeleton Keys

"The story of Diplodocus is supposed to be familiar. But as revealed here by paleontological historian Ilja Nieuwland, the true story is more complex, nuanced, and interesting. His book is a crucial contribution to the sparse literature on historical paleontology and includes a vast amount of detail not previously covered elsewhere."
– Darren Naish, coauthor of Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved

"Ilja Nieuwland has written a thoroughly researched and engaging account of the history of Diplodocus carnegii. American Dinosaur Abroad offers fascinating insight into the workings of international and national science in the early twentieth century and the growth of the iconic popularity of dinosaurs. A landmark work in the history of paleontology."
– Chris Manias, King's College London

"Engaging and illuminating."
The Times Literary Supplement

"The book is a story of science and history, but it's also a close reading of how fossils and their replicas become tools of capitalism, power, and privilege. And it's a story that Nieuwland tells particularly well [...] American Dinosaur Abroad offers a well-researched example of how paleontological patronage ensured the scientific, social, and commercial success of a dinosaur. It's also a fascinating window into the idiosyncratic hubris of one of America's most consequential barons."
Pacific Standard

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