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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

Assembling the Dinosaur Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

By: Lukas Rieppel(Author)
325 pages, 45 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Assembling the Dinosaur provides a scholarly and broad historical perspective on palaeontology in 19th Century American museums, and how it was entangled with the rise of corporate capitalism during this time.
Assembling the Dinosaur
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  • Assembling the Dinosaur ISBN: 9780674737587 Hardback Jun 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £26.95
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About this book

A lively account of how dinosaurs became a symbol of American power and prosperity and gripped the popular imagination during the Gilded Age, when their fossil remains were collected and displayed in museums financed by North America's wealthiest business tycoons.

Although dinosaur fossils were first found in England, a series of dramatic discoveries during the late 1800s turned North America into a world centre for vertebrate palaeontology. At the same time, the United States emerged as the world's largest industrial economy, and creatures like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Triceratops became emblems of American capitalism. Large, fierce, and spectacular, American dinosaurs dominated the popular imagination, making front-page headlines and appearing in feature films.

Assembling the Dinosaur follows dinosaur fossils from the field to the museum and into the commercial culture of North America's Gilded Age. Business tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan made common cause with vertebrate palaeontologists to capitalize on the widespread appeal of dinosaurs, using them to project American exceptionalism back into prehistory. Learning from the show-stopping techniques of P. T. Barnum, museums exhibited dinosaurs to attract, entertain, and educate the public. By assembling the skeletons of dinosaurs into eye-catching displays, wealthy industrialists sought to cement their own reputations as generous benefactors of science, showing that modern capitalism could produce public goods in addition to profits. Behind the scenes, museums adopted corporate management practices to control the movement of dinosaur bones, restricting their circulation to influence their meaning and value in popular culture.

Tracing the entwined relationship of dinosaurs, capitalism, and culture during the Gilded Age, Lukas Rieppel reveals the outsized role these giant reptiles played during one of the most consequential periods in American history.


1. Prospecting for Dinosaurs
2. Tea with Brontosaurus
3. Andrew Carnegie’s Diplodocus
4. Accounting for Dinosaurs
5. Exhibiting Extinction
6. Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life
Conclusion: Feathered Dragons

Illustration Credits

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Scholarly historical perspective on palaeontology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 16 Dec 2019 Written for Hardback

    Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

    Rieppel takes the summer of 1877 as the starting point of his book. Three separate quarries in the American West yielded some of the largest and most complete dinosaur fossils so far. This was a very interesting and short-lived period in which independent frontiersmen were swarming across the country during the mining boom, with railway construction following in their wake. Fossils were treated like other mining commodities, to be traded for cash with interested naturalists. This led to protracted negotiations and the risk of fraud and embellishment of fossils finds to boost their value. It was also a period that would not last long.

    The reason for this was the rise of a new breed of large natural history museums that mounted their own fossil-collecting expeditions. Where did these suddenly come from? This is where Rieppel clarifies what he means by the entanglement of science and capitalism. A wave of mergers and acquisitions irrevocably altered the American business landscape at the beginning of the twentieth century, with many small, family-owned businesses being consolidated into far fewer, far larger corporations. Business magnates running these corporations funnelled some of their new wealth into philanthropic activities, including museums. And vertebrate palaeontology was a topic that was both a crowd-pleaser and one that, when done right, had an air of sophistication (for more on this history, see The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush).

    Rieppel first turns to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Backed by American banker J.P. Morgan, it made a huge publicity splash in 1905 with the mounted skeleton of a Brontosaurus. This event is Rieppel’s starting point for a history of this museum, from the ideas leading to its founding in 1869 up to this exhibition. But rather than the particulars, what makes this story so interesting is the wider context that Rieppel provides (see also Life on Display). At the time, the AMNH was competing against so-called dime museums whose exhibitions were far more lurid, including freaks of nature, pickled medical specimens with anatomical deformities, or outright fakes such as mermaids. Furthermore, they pioneered the idea of a museum being both a public venue and an institute of learning and scientific research. The 1905 exhibition was the stimulus for Andrew Carnegie to ask the director of his Pittsburgh museum to find a similar sauropod skeleton. This is the subject of chapter 3 of this book and my review of Nieuwland’s book American Dinosaur Abroad.

    This theme of tension between what a museum could be and the reality in the face of competition is further explored in the last chapter. Dinosaurs were also hugely popular in movies, print publications, and amusement parks, all of which took liberties with their portrayal. Museums tried to set themselves apart by stressing how their ideas were informed by the latest science. Yet the desire to attract audiences with spectacular displays led to tensions with the scientific community, who struggled with the authenticity of displays (often cobbled together from different fossil skeletons) and the difficulties of deducing real-life posture from fragmentary fossil material.

    Another case of corporate and scientific entanglement is the chapter where Rieppel examines the day-to-day operations in these new large museums, showing how they mimicked corporate management practices. He examines how dig sites were more carefully documented on grid maps, how material in transit was labelled and databased in ledgers and filing systems (computers were still far in the future), and how curators tried to conserve as much information as possible about the context in which fossils were found. With well-funded expeditions bringing in huge quantities of material, some sort of oversight was vital to make sense of the data pouring into museums.

    Although most of the book is careful historical documentation, chapter 5 sees Rieppel do his own share of reinterpretation. While various authors have argued that museum exhibitions of this era (showing fearsome dinosaurs engaged in epic struggle) was symbolic for the rise of capitalism and economic survival of the fittest, Rieppel argues the opposite: their extinction was a symbol of a bygone era. In the same way that the extinction of the dinosaurs had allowed the rise of mammals (which according to the zeitgeist were obviously superior), so the economic elite was forging a narrative justifying their rise to power, using vertebrate palaeontology exhibits as part of this. Or so, in short, goes his argument here.

    A short concluding chapter examines what happened to the interest in dinosaurs after the Great Depression almost brought these philanthropic museums to their knees. Although it mentions the dinosaur heresies kicked off by Robert Bakker and others (see The Dinosaur Heresies), it focuses foremost on the spectacular feathered fossil finds from China and the insight that birds descended from dinosaurs (see e.g. Living Dinosaurs, Flying Dinosaurs, and Birds of Stone).

    I concluded my review of American Dinosaur Abroad by writing that, together with King of the Dinosaur Hunters, these books form a recent triptych of palaeontology at the turn of the 19th century. Of these three, Rieppel’s book is by far the most scholarly, though the conclusions at each chapter’s end are very helpful. It is also a book that is not exclusively about dinosaurs as Rieppel brings a broad perspective to the topic – his thorough and useful notes often read like mini-literature reviews. I have only touched upon a handful of the many fascinating observations and ideas in this book. Readers with an interest in science history, museology, and the history of palaeontology are well served with this book.
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Lukas Rieppel is the David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Brown University. He has held fellowships from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Charles Warren Center for American History at Harvard University, the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern University, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

By: Lukas Rieppel(Author)
325 pages, 45 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Assembling the Dinosaur provides a scholarly and broad historical perspective on palaeontology in 19th Century American museums, and how it was entangled with the rise of corporate capitalism during this time.
Media reviews

 "Rieppel traces the commingling of capitalism and science [...] Thrilling museum fossil displays burnished the reputations of philanthropists who backed the institutions, such as Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan – even as the tycoons twisted the dinosaurs' demise into a metaphor for the advance of 'enlightened' corporate culture."

– Barbara Kiser, Nature 571(7763), July 2019

"Assembling the Dinosaur is a solid entry into the growing body of literature on Gilded Age American paleontology, but it is particularly valuable for its contribution to enhancing our understanding of how science and its representation during that period were influenced by, and in turn affected, society as a whole. By incorporating cultural, economic, and scientific developments, Rieppel shines new light on the history of both American paleontology and museum exhibition practice."
– Ilja Nieuwland, Science

"A brilliant, original history of dinosaurs set within the landscape of American science, capitalism, and culture. Rieppel integrates the practices and ambitions of vertebrate paleontologists, the patronage they found among wealthy industrialists, and the public's fascination with these colossal creatures from the deep past – from the discovery of fossil remains in the American West at the turn of the twentieth century through their assembly in emergent museums of natural history. Resting on extensive archival research and apt illustrations, Assembling the Dinosaur is an altogether authoritative and captivating work."
– Daniel J. Kevles, Living Properties: Making Knowledge and Controlling Ownership in the History of Biology

"This innovative book reinterprets the discovery of dinosaurs in the American West as a compelling aspect of the country's culture at a time of dramatic economic expansion. Highly recommended as a stimulating account of science during the Gilded Age and beyond."
– Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging

"The nineteenth century saw the simultaneous rise of industrial capitalism and the discovery of dinosaurs. These hulking creatures, expensive to excavate and to display, became a perfect match for the self-presentation of the rising economic elite in the United States. Connecting the history of capitalism and the history of science, this important book traces how the shifting presentation of these fossils – from massive, slow moving, and solitary to agile and social – mirrored the transition from giant corporations to nimble startups."
– Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History

"Resting on broad erudition and an expansive historical imagination, Assembling the Dinosaur explores the relationship of science, culture, and economy in the Gilded Age. It is a unique contribution to our understanding of the making of modern America."
– Michael Zakim, author of Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made

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