Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and 1950s kids

May 20, 2022

I’ve been in contact recently with Matt Lamanna, Associate Curator in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History — which is obviously the best job in the world. Among a batch of photos that he sent me recently, I seized on this gem:

Tyrannosaurus rex, Diplodocus carnegii, Apatosaurus louisae and multiple mostly juvenile individuals of Homo sapiens. Photograph taken between 1941 and 1965. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

There’s so much to appreciate in this picture: the hunchbacked, tail-dragging Tyrannosaurus; the camarasaur-style skull on the Apatosaurus; the hard-to-pin-down archaic air of Diplodocus.

But the thing I love about it is the 1950s kids. (Or, to be fair, maybe the 1940s kids or early 1960s kids, but you get the point.) They way they’ve all been asked to look up at the tyrannosaur skull, and are obediently doing it. How earnest they all appear. How they’re all dressed as tiny adults. How self-consciously some of them have posed themselves — the thoughtful kid one in from the left, his foot up on the plinth and his chin resting on his hand; the cool kid to his right, arms crossed, interested but careful not to seem too impressed.

Where are these kids now? Assuming it was taken in 1953, the midpoint of the possible range, and assuming they’re about 12 years old in this photo, they were born around 1941, which would make them 81 now. Statistically, somewhere around half of them are still alive. I wonder how many of them remember this day, and the strange blend of awe, fascination, and self-consciousness.

This is a time-capsule, friends. Enjoy it.

20 Responses to “Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and 1950s kids”

  1. Taylor McCoy Says:

    Volunteer with Matt at the museum. Can’t forget the holotype status 😉

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    What do you mean, Taylor? Both sauropods are holotypes of their species (and D. carnegii should be the type of its genus, too, but for a very poor decision by the ICZN to reject a petition to that effect). Is the Tyrannosaurus in this photo CM 9380?

  3. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    I assume the archaic posture of the diplodocus is also its hunched back; if you are going to drag the tail, arching the back is going to happen because you’ve tilted the sacrum, and that drops the neck and head way below what we now think is proper.

  4. Taylor McCoy Says:

    Sorry for the delay Mike, yes! That’s CM 9380 pre reno and adjusted posture!

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brad, I think you’ve got it! Taylor, good to know.

  6. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    I guess I haven’t observed modern lizards very closely, but do even they drag their tails? Snakes obviously do, but that’s propulsive necessity. I’m not going to call early dino researchers benighted, but how in Gd’s name could T. rex even feed if its head was that high above a carcass? Humans achieved bipedalism late, so our spine is pretty contorted – and if the only other bipeds that come to mind are birds, did no one really notice the similarities until archaeopteryx? I thought a few had. Or DID they notice – and were thrown off by birds being quite upright, not having the tail counterbalance? Kangaroos. Holy cow, an image search on kangaroos shows just how messed up they look, lol, a lot like these old dino mounts – only more so. Lol, never mind. These guys DID look at the similar-ish bipeds.

  7. Allen Hazen Says:

    The AMNH’s “Brontosaurus” also used to have a Camarasaurus-style skull. (There was press coverage in the ??? 1970s ??? when ??? David Berman ” decided that was wrong. Had the AMNH followed Carnegie’s lead in using the C-style skull, or had Carnegie followed AMNH’s lead, or were they both following someone else (YPM comes to mind as the obvious suspect)?

    I visited AMNH (repeatedly: it was one of my favourite places as a child) in roughly the period of this photo. (I was 6 in 1953.) All their big theropods (T., All., and Albert.) were mounted, in those days, in the tail-dragging, backbone at 45 degrees, pose. (Albertosaurus was in a wall mount, with left (I think) side of skeleton displayed, and I think the skull semi-embedded in, an artificial matrix: that specimen is still displayed in the traditional posture.)

    AMNH has more fossils on public display than CMNH: enough to fill two halls. So which ones go in which hall? The revised exhibition, with theropods having roughly horizontal backs, was done in the period when it was de rigueur for every paleontological article to include a cladogram, and is organized cladistically: Ornithischians in one hall, Saurischians in the other. (That will be an embarrassment if the proposed ((Theropoda,Ornithischia) Sauropoda) phylogeny comes to be generally accepted…) The older arrangement had the Jurassic (and earlier) vert. fossils in one hall, and Cretaceous in the other, so that the big displays made more ecological sense: Allosaurus in the room with Stegosaurus and “Brontosaurus,” Tyrannosaurus in the room with Triceratops and various hadrosaurs: if pressed, I’d guess that the older arrangement was better at giving juvenile H. sap an understanding of dinosaurs as real animals.

    Thanks for posting the photo: different museum, but enough of an atmosphere from the same period to bring back happy childhood memories!

  8. Allen Hazen Says:

    Brad Lichtenstein–
    I think part of the mind-set that led to the long acceptance of the poses we now find ludicrous was the idea that dinosaurs were REPTILES: low energy ectotherms. I mean, if you think that Sauropods needed to stay in the water, at least most of the time, to float their body weight, you’d find it natural to suppose they would drag their tails on the occasions when they came, briefly, out on land. … I think crocodilian “high walk” wasn’t as widely known as it is now, so you would also assume that crocodilians are habitual tail draggers: at which point, when you tried to reconstruct a theropod (an animal with no decent extant analogues, but with skulls and tails not a hundred miles from an alligator’s), the traditional posture might be your first guess.

    So the old image of dinosaurs may have been benighted (as well as be-Knighted!), but I don’t think you can dismiss the people who came up with it as stupid.

  9. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    No, I don’t think they were stupid in the least – I do think the focus of the famous paleos was on fame, and therefore how many they could find and write up. Quantity over quality. But seriously – kangaroos have a tail, and they DO use it for transport. When they don’t hop, they pentapod – and even use the tail as serious forward propulsion in the process.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Allen, the Cam-style skull on Apatosaurus is definitely the AMNH’s fault. The Carnegie Museum pretty much knew from early on that apatosaurines had diplodocine-like skulls, because they had the skull of CM 3018 all along. But because it was found some short way from the rest of the specimen, Holland allowed himself to be cowed by Osborn’s preference for the Cam-skull in the AMNH mount, and did not have the apatosaur skull mounted on CM 3018. In fact, the mount was completely without skull until Holland’s death, when it was finally installed … using Cam-like model. D’oh!

  11. Allen Hazen Says:

    Thanks for reply! (“Holland allowed himself to be cowed by Osborn’s preference”: given other Osborn stories, I can almost imagine Osborn browbeating (in a supercilious tone of voice) Holland at a conference!)
    Yes on kangaroos. Their design is great for high-speed travel, but at low speeds — while browsing on grass, for example — they look VERY odd indeed. The difference in length between fore and aft limbs (and the big feet Macropods are named for) would, I guess, make normal tretrapodal walking almost impossible. As I recall (it’s been a few years since I looked at one), the gait has a phase in which the weight is born on the forelegs and the tail, and the two hind legs are more or less simultaneously lifted and moved forward: am I right in interpreting your “even use the tail as serious forward propulsion” as referring to the end of this phase, when the body is leaned forward to bring the hind legs foreward?
    … I suppose kangaroos had some influence on traditional interpretations of theropods. There’s a picture — Knight, I think — of two theropods fighting which might have been inspiredly “boxing” kangaroos.

  12. Arionquill Says:

    Gonna suggest the date is from after 1954 given that the class is desegregated. Segregation was technically illegal in Pittsburgh at the time and had been since 1881, but in practice we’re still struggling with it today, so I suspect before Brown v. Board a class like this was less common.

    I have some photos from 1999 of this hall – the only change was the apatosaurus skull before the major renovation.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Arionquill, that’s really interesting — and horrifying.

    I’d be interested to see your photos. Can you please email them to me on dino@miketaylor.org.uk?

  14. Brad McFeeters Says:

    The smaller dinosaur skeleton in this photo is CM 11337, the holotype of Camptosaurus aphanoecetes (aka Uteodon).

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brad, do you mean the wall-mount behind the tyrannosaur’s left leg?

  16. Brad McFeeters Says:

    Yes. The complete mount is shown in Fig. 4B of Carpenter & Wilson 2008.

  17. John Dziak Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this awesome and wholesome slice of life! I also really enjoyed your reconstruction of the fascinating life of that paleontologist who otherwise would only have been known from a snarky comment about Barosaurus.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, John! It’s strange, the places palaeontology takes us.

  19. leecris12 Says:

    I agree with the 50’s date for the humans – graduated from high school in 1963 but by then we had given up the full circular skirts for straight pencil skirts. We were NOT allowed to wear any sort of trousers to school.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thank you, leecris12, that’s helpful!

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