The Making of Jurassic Park
Macbeth’s soliloquy on his intended murder of King Duncan provides our canonical quotation for the vital theme that deeds spawn unintended consequences in distant futures. “If it were done when ’tis done,” Macbeth muses, “then ’twere well it were done quickly.” The act must be swift but, even more importantly, the sequelae must be contained, as Macbeth hopes to
trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here.
Yet Macbeth fears that big events must unleash all the genies of unknowable futures—for “bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague th’ inventor.”
I doubt that Henry Fairfield Osborn considered these lines, or imagined any popular future for his new discoveries, when he published a conventionally dull, descriptive paper in 1924 on three genera of dinosaurs recently found in Mongolia on the famous Gobi Desert expedition. In this paper, entitled “Three New Theropoda, Protoceratops Zone, Central Mongolia,”1 Osborn named, and described for the first time, the “skull and jaws, one front claw and adjoining phalanges” of a small, but apparently lithe and skillful carnivore. He called his new creature Velociraptor mongoliensis to honor these inferred skills, for Velociraptor, means “quick seizer.” Velociraptor, Osborn wrote, “seems to have been an alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur.” He then describes the teeth as “perfectly adapted to the sudden seizure of…swift-moving prey…. The long rostrum and wide gape of the jaws indicate that the prey was not only living but of considerable size.”
Osborn was America’s greatest vertebrate paleontologist, but he was also the politically conservative, socially prominent, imperious president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He would, I think, have been quite surprised, and not at all amused, to learn that, nearly seventy years later, his creature would win a new, and vastly extended, status as the primary dinosaur hero (or villain, depending on your modes of rooting) in Jurassic Park, the biggest blockbuster film of all time.
Public fascination has always followed these prehistoric beasts. Just ten years after Richard Owen coined the word dinosaur in 1840, sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins was hard at work on a series of full-scale models to display in the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. (The Palace burned down in 1936, but Hawkin’s dinosaurs, recently spruced up with a coat of paint, can still be seen in Sydenham, south of London.)
But the popular acclaim of dinosaurs has been fitful and episodic. We saw them in King Kong (thanks to Willis O’Brien and his brilliant technique of stop-motion filming using models, later magnified). We filled our cars under the sign of the jolly green giant Brontosaurus, the logo of Sinclair Oil (who also provided a fine exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York). But dinosaurs never became a big or truly pervasive cultural icon, and some decades largely ignored them. I was a “dinosaur nut” as a kid growing up in New York…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.