Prospecting for Dinosaurs on the Mining Frontier

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:10 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lukas Rieppel, Brown University
During the summer of 1877, three major dinosaur quarries were simultaneously unearthed in the American West. Together, they helped to catapult the United States into a position as the world center for paleontological research, publication, and display. Among other things, this remarkable instance of simultaneous discovery reveals much about the way science and capitalism were entwined at the time. For example, in each of these three cases, news of the discovery made its way to a learned naturalist by way of a letter offering it for sale. During the Gilded Age, even a practice so seemingly remote from the spread of industrial capitalism as digging for dinosaurs constituted an economic activity. But how much was a dinosaur worth? As one might expect, answering this question turned out to be far from straightforward. On their own, abstract market principles did not suffice to mediate between supply and demand. Rather, people haggling over a dinosaur quarry looked to the social norms that governed economic behavior in the mineral industry for cues on how to value these rare and unusual objects. For this reason, the 1877 discoveries provide a revealing glimpse of the commercial logic that informed how business was conducted on the late 19th century mining frontier more generally.
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