Megalosaurus has the distinction of being the first dinosaur ever mentioned in popular media. It appeared in the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s 1852 novel Bleak House (the photo of Dickens at left dates from the year the novel was published). Megalosaurus bones were first discovered in 1677 in England, and in 1824 it also became the first dinosaur to have a scientific description published once paleontologist William Buckland correctly identified the bones as belonging to a dinosaur. Initially the bones were believed to have come from a Biblical race of giants or from a dragon…
This is not to say that Dickens, or even Buckland, had a particularly accurate idea of what a Megalosaurus would have looked like. Having now found many bones of its species (though still no complete skeleton), it is known that Megalosaurus was a strong carnivore–not the fastest of the meat-eating giants but still faster than the lumbering stegosaur prey of its heyday in the middle Jurassic period (166 million years ago). It’s also now recognized that Megalosaurus walked upright on two strong hind legs but that its arms were rather short and likely of little use; its fearsome jaws were enough to tear chunks out of its prey without the need for a hunter’s claws.
When Buckland first published his description, however, it was on the basis of a more limited number of fossilized bones and without the benefit of modern paleozooligical advances. The first illustrations of Megalosaurus depicted a large-headed, rather square-shaped, four-legged beast. In 1852, English sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to make a model of Megalosaurus for the exhibition of dinosaurs at the Crystal Palace in London. As seen in the photograph by C.G.P. Grey at left, this sculpture comported with this early, erroneous description.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Dickens wrote about Megalosaurus, it was as follows:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
- Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis added)
Rather than such a lazy waddler, a Megalosaurus in London would’ve been more likely to tear through the streets, picking off pedestrians and the Lord Chancellor alike as so many morsels at a buffet.