The tradition of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs was alive and kicking at the Los Angeles County Fair, September 2016. A top attraction was Jurassic Planet, the three-acre animatronic adventure. It featured 35 life-sized dinosaurs including a 44-foot-long T-Rex. Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins who created the first full-sized dinosaur statues in 1854 would have loved it. We’re happy to report that Hawkins’ Victorian Era Crystal Palace Dinosaurs roam the earth to this day.
Renowned gardener Joseph Paxton designed the Crystal Palace. When the Great Exhibition closed in October 1851, a private company purchased the Crystal Palace. The enormous structure was disassembled by thousands of workers and moved to Penge Place Estate in Sydenham, a soon to be trendy neighborhood in southeast London. Artist Camille Pissarro who lived in the neighborhood, painted the new and improved Crystal Palace.
Paxton and his investors dreamed of creating a “Winter Park And Garden Under Glass.” His vision became a reality in spite of a wave of controversy and protests according to The Crystal Palace Foundation.
In June of 1854, Queen Victoria opened the enormous new glass construction with its surrounding gardens and parklands. The bigger, better Crystal Palace was 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide. It featured two 284-foot towers designed by Brunel and fountains with 12,000 jets of water shooting skyward.
The palace and grounds became the world’s first theme park. The expansion of railroads to seaside towns undoubtedly served as a model for creating new destinations for the burgeoning middle and working class. A dedicated railway line brought more than 2 million visitors to the Crystal Palace over the next few years. Entrance fees helped pay the huge bill for the park.
Like the best fairs and theme parks today, it offered food, educational displays, entertainment, concerts, festivals and rides including merry-go-rounds and a roller coaster.
One of the most beloved features of the park was the prehistoric swamp with 33 “life-sized” dinosaurs as they were envisioned at the time. These sculptures were the first like them in the world. They were favorites of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who visited the swamp several times.
Famed sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned by the new owners of the Crystal Palace to build the great sculptures. He worked closely with renowned Biologist/Paleontologist Richard Owen who determined the general size and shape of the creatures.
Construction was no easy task. The first to be born was Megatherium. Hawkins created a full-sized mold and filled it with concrete. The method proved costly and time consuming so Hawkins devised a new plan. The rest of the creatures were built as layers of brick and concrete around metal frames.
Hawkins celebrated the completion of his dinosaurs by throwing a New Year’s Eve party in 1853. The formal dinner took place inside the mold of one of the dinosaurs.
Among the 33 sculptures were 15 genera of extinct animals, most of which were dinosaurs. The most famous of them is Iguanodon Megalosaurus. Crystal Palace Park’s Prehistoric Monster Trail offers a complete list of names and images of the models included.
Also included in the crowd were prehistoric creatures that had been discovered by Mary Anning, the English fossil collector. These were the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.
The daughter of a poor cabinetmaker, Anning combed the cliffs along the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Southwest England since she was a child. Although she had no formal scientific education, she became known for her intuitive expertise and depth of knowledge of fossils.
Despite her significant contributions to paleontology, she lived in near poverty her entire life. As a woman, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London and did not receive credit for her many scientific contributions.
Among the sculptures was the South American Megatherium that Charles Darwin brought back to Britain on the HMS Beagle.
It’s easy to look back smugly at the “errors” Hawkins and Owen made in their early sculptures. We now “know” that Ichthyosaurus had a dorsal fin and did not bask on land. We also “know” that the horns Hawkins placed on the noses of his Iguanodons were really thumb spikes.
Today’s paleontologists have a sizable body of knowledge and evidence to help them reconstruct extinct creatures. Like Mary Anning, the best of them are excellent anatomists.
According to Science Focus, “ to those in the know, the small details of the shape of bones can reveal a great deal of information about the animal they came from.” They even have new techniques that help them determine the true colors of prehistoric animals. And 3D computer models use the physiology of living creatures to predict the likely movement and appearance of extinct species.
When Hawkins and Owen rolled up their sleeves and created the first dinosaur models, none of this information was available.
How do we really know what dinosaurs looked like? That was the burning question in 1854 and in the Jurassic World Exhibit at the L.A. Count Fair in 2106. Scientists tell us that they “know” with reasonable certainty. But is it possible that new evidence will surface to change their ideas?
Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs offer detailed information on the Hawkins’ great sculptures and how you can see them today.
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