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Dino-versary: Pittsburgh’s Dippy fossil marks 125 years

A big dinosaur skeleton.
Joshua Franzos
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
This specimen of diplodocus carnegii, known as Dippy, was discovered 125 years ago.

The first of the bones that would become known as Dippy the dinosaur were dug from the soil of Sheep Creek, Wyo., 125 years ago this month, in July 1899.

The 84-foot-long diplodocus skeleton didn’t go on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for another eight years. But by then, Dippy was already well on its way to being a ’saur winner: A cast of it that went on display at the British Museum of Natural History in 1905 caused a sensation among a public for whom a “dinosaur” was a relatively new concept.

“The discovery of this animal gave scientists — and actually the public as well — kind of a window into what the biggest dinosaurs, and therefore the biggest land animals of all time were like, for really the first time in human history,” said Matt Lamanna, the Carnegie’s curator of vertebrate paleontology.

The Carnegie marks the milestone with a series of talks and science-themed celebrations at the museum starting Fri., July 12.

Dippy the dinosaur wearing a Pride scarf, outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in June 2023.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
Dippy the dinosaur wearing a Pride scarf, outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in June 2023.

Dippy — who’s also represented by the landmark statue erected outside the museum 25 years ago, for its centennial — is a Pittsburgh icon. And its path here was paved by another local icon, museum founder Andrew Carnegie himself.

The so-called “bone wars” over dinosaur fossils in the American West began in the 1870s. By 1898, Carnegie was well established as a leading Gilded Age tycoon and a philanthropist known for founding public libraries in Pittsburgh and around the world.

He was also intrigued enough by dinosaurs that, upon learning of a big find out West, he bankrolled an expedition to acquire a specimen for his brand-new museum in Pittsburgh. (Carnegie was just a couple years from the 1901 deal with J.P. Morgan that would make him the world’s richest human.)

The diplodocus was a land-dwelling, plant-eating sauropod that lived about 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period.

Sarah Davis, who manages the Carnegie’s vertebrate paleontology section, said most of what became Dippy was found in 1899 -- a single diplodocus about two-thirds complete. Most of the rest was dug up in 1900, those bones supplied by a second diplodocus found right next to the first. Dippy’s skull was among the components culled from other specimens, Davis said.

The whole was named diplodocus carnegii, in Carnegie’s honor. (Multiple species of diplodocus have been identified, Lamanna said.)

Lamanna said that although the term “dinosaur” (“thunder lizard”) was coined in the 1840s, a half-century later most of the public still had little sense of what these creatures had been like, or how big they got. That explains the uproar when Dippy’s replica went on display in London.

“I think for a lot of people, diplodocus, Dippy, was their first glimpse not only of a giant dinosaur, but of any dinosaur at all, really,” said Lamanna.

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But why did the British Museum get to host the debut of Dippy, or at least a cast of Dippy? (The Brits were even the ones who first nicknamed the skeleton Dippy, Davis said.)

The reason was that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History wasn’t big enough to host a skeleton 84 feet long and 22 feet tall. An expansion of the facility was done in part to accommodate the new resident and is why the museum was once known as “the house that Dippy built,” Lamanna said.

“We have the original fossil of what’s probably the most famous, most visible individual dinosaur specimen in the history of the world,” said Lamanna.

But Dippy wasn’t done traveling. By 1910, additional casts resided in museums in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Bologna and St. Petersburg. (It’s said that Carnegie, in his later years an outspoken advocate for world peace, donated the casts as a form of international good will.)

“This is probably the most seen dinosaur, the most visible dinosaur, the most encountered dinosaur by the public in the history of the planet,” said Lamanna.

Davis notes that our understanding of dinosaurs, unlike the dinosaurs themselves, keeps evolving.

For instance, she said, scientists 125 years ago thought sauropods like diplodocus had feet like elephants, that their tails dragged on the ground, and that their necks hung in a shallow “u” shape. But by the time that fiberglass Dippy statue was installed on Forbes Avenue, in 1999, it was understood that the dinos had a narrower footpad and clawed toes, carried their tails high and their necks in a more neutral position.

Davis, whose areas of study include the possible coloration of dinosaurs, says diplodocus might well have had skin that was something other than the slate-gray tone worn by Dippy’s statue.

“It’s possible it had some kind of patterning across the skin, and being such a large animal, maybe not brightly colored, but there is potential for some non-gray coloration in there,” she said.

Such new insights are sure to be on the agenda when Dippy’s 125th-birthday events begin Fri., July 12, with Discovering Dippy: The Dinosaur That Changed the World. The day-long, pay-what-you-wish event features talks by scientists, historians and museum professionals.

Other events this month include Super Science Saturday: Dippy’s Jurassic World, a Sat., July 13, program geared for kids, and Dippy’s Rockstar Bash After Dark, a 21-and-over party including pop-up musical performances.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: