Our First Encounter With T. Rex

A new book looks at the Gilded Age discovery of the prehistoric monster and the money and egos that have driven the search for dinosaur bones ever since.

Drawing of T. rex with a museum for a head.
The Atlantic

The money had come fast. As a young man from humble stock, he had toiled away at an entry-level job in telecommunications. Now, as his ambition rode the wave of new technology, a small opportunity had turned into unimaginable riches. What to do with so much wealth? Restless and bursting with pride, and perhaps a tinge of guilt for his good fortune, the multimillionaire transformed into a titan of science. He longed to explore other worlds, his money a conduit for breaking free of the claustrophobic Earth on which he lived.

In 2021, Jeff Bezos went into space. In 1899, Andrew Carnegie went to the Jurassic period.

Carnegie—an impoverished Scottish immigrant who rapidly rose from telegraph boy to railroad baron—was about to become the richest man in his new American home. When a newspaper article trumpeting the discovery of the remains of the “most colossal animal ever on Earth” landed on his desk, Carnegie knew he needed to have them. But when these bones turned out to be much less than advertised, he commissioned his own team of explorers to find the greatest giant that had ever lived. And they did, on the Fourth of July, embedded in 150-million-year-old rocks in the dusty nowhere near Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

The beast was a dinosaur. Its size was stupendous; at more than 75 feet long and weighing about 14 tons, its barrel-chested, column-limbed, noodle-necked body was totally out of scale with anything any human had ever seen. The enormous creature was given a formal scientific name in honor of its benefactor—Diplodocus carnegii—and soon became a global luminary when Carnegie, after a chat with his pal King Edward VII of England, sent plaster copies of its bones to museums around the world. Meanwhile, as Carnegie crowed from his mansion in  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, other men of means were taking notice. Dinosaurs had become big business.

In his new book, The Monster’s Bones, David K. Randall brings alive that swashbuckling time at the turn of the 20th century, when dinosaurs were still a relatively new concept, and the science of paleontology a weapon as America’s wealthiest men and institutions jostled for power in the waning days of the Gilded Age. Randall, a senior reporter at Reuters, combines his journalist’s eye for details with a storyteller’s flair for spectacle. His tale is as rollicking as a Western—and in many senses, it is one. It tells of an age when paleontology was woven into the fabric of the American frontier, scientists reached the field by stagecoach and Pullman car, and literal cowboys collected dinosaur bones from the badlands, in service of the East Coast gentry. Along the way, Randall grapples with a profound question: Should fossils be treated as commodities?

Carnegie was but one of the Eastern elite bankrolling the fossil trade, and his Diplodocus one of many dinosaurs unearthed during this era of ego-driven exploration. In fact, in Randall’s book, Carnegie assumes a role he rarely played in life: bit character. This is because his enormous dinosaur didn’t hold the limelight for long. Diplodocus had the great misfortune of being unearthed three years before the most hyperbolic fossil in history made its debut: Tyrannosaurus rex.

Today everyone knows T. rex. It is an icon, one of the few species colloquially known by its abbreviated Latin epithet (E. coli perhaps being the only other). In Randall’s words, it was as if “a child’s conception of a monster had become real.” The baddest dinosaur that ever was: as long as a bus, weighing more than an elephant, its head the size of a bathtub, lined with more than 50 banana-shaped teeth that could crush the bones of its prey. T. rex was one of the last surviving dinosaurs, a witness to the asteroid that snuffed out the Age of Reptiles, 66 million years ago, opening the floodgates for mammals to diversify.

But transport yourself back to 1902, and nobody knew that such a thing had existed. In his book, Randall recounts the drama of how T. rex and humanity first crossed paths. The story reads like a soap opera, as Randall follows the origins, obsessions, conflicts, and triumphs of the most unlikely scientific duo of the Gilded Age. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a paleontologist who worked at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, was the moneyman: scion of a railroad family, nephew to the corporate raider J. P. Morgan, boyhood chums with Theodore Roosevelt, as well as an insufferable racist and avowed eugenicist. Barnum Brown was the guy who found the fossils: child of the Kansas prairie with a bloodhound’s sense for petrified bones, a flamboyant dandy who did fieldwork in a full-length fur coat and spied for oil companies and the forerunner of the CIA in his spare time.

Osborn tasked Brown to find something to top Carnegie’s dinosaur, and Brown did. While exploring the ranchlands near Hell Creek, in Montana—then a sparsely populated and still largely unexplored sweep of the American hinterlands—Brown found the leg and other parts of a predatory dinosaur, the leg stretching higher than a basketball hoop. A few years later, he located an even more complete skeleton, capped with a hideous skull that rivaled any dragon in medieval lore. When the bones were displayed in New York, they caused a sensation. T. rex was soon a celebrity, as were the men behind its discovery. Osborn presided over the museum, eventually graced the cover of Time, and in the 1920s was one of America’s most recognized scientists. Brown snared himself a weekly radio show and helped Walt Disney design the dinosaurs in Fantasia.

A century later, T. rex remains unrivaled. Yet the science of paleontology has moved on; no longer is dinosaur hunting financed by industry barons desperate to one-up one another, and no longer are dinosaurs collected by frontiersmen on horseback. Still, many of the questions posed during the Gilded Age remain. What are fossils for? Whom do they belong to? Are they prizes to be owned like pieces of art, obtainable only by the richest among us? Or are they irreplaceable treasures of natural heritage that should be accessible to everyone, to learn from and be inspired by?

Randall wrestles with these questions, but here, his book is already slightly outdated. In late March 2022, it was announced that one of the world’s premier T. rex skeletons, nicknamed Stan, would be the centerpiece of a new museum being constructed in Abu Dhabi. A couple of years earlier, the fossil was auctioned for a staggering $31.8 million—the largest sum ever for a dinosaur—to an unknown bidder, leaving paleontologists like me aghast. Many of us are reassured that the skeleton has found its way to a museum, although the way it happened leaves me uneasy. Are we entering another age when museums can access dinosaurs only through murky connections with unholy amounts of private capital?

There is another question that Osborn and Brown—and the millions of museumgoers who flocked to see their T. rex—tussled with. What does T. rex tell us about our place in the world? Osborn saw T. rex as a link in a racist hierarchy: a “lesser” species that ruled with raw power instead of the reason and smarts that, to him, characterized only the most “fit” human races. We abhor such views today. Instead, we see dinosaurs as oracles from prehistory. They reveal that real animals have dealt with real moments of climate and environmental change, and sometimes even the dominant species can die out when their world shifts too rapidly. And they remind us that humans are but one speck in the grand scheme of evolution, and that no matter how much intelligence or power or prestige any of us may have, there were once monsters that were far grander.

Those monsters are now long gone. All that remains are their petrified bones, such rare and sublime clues from the depths of time. Dinosaurs are absolutely valuable—but to me, they hold far greater worth to our collective knowledge than to the ledger books and egos of the wealthiest elite.