The Overlooked Paleontologist Who May Have Inspired 'She Sells Sea Shells'

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the summer of 1844, King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony and his royal entourage were walking down Broad Street in the coastal town of Lyme Regis when they were drawn to the window of a cottage. Treasures lay on the other side of the glass: Coiled ammonite shells—long since turned to stone—were arranged in an appealing display, and in the center sat the petrified skull of a long-snouted sea reptile with pointed teeth and impossibly huge eyes.

A sign above the door read Anning's Fossil Depot. The King and his party stepped inside.

There were Jurassic-era fossils throughout the small, unassuming shop, and yet, the single most fascinating thing in the store may well have been its proprietor, Mary Anning. She'd spent a lifetime simultaneously providing for her family and unlocking the secrets of Lyme Regis's ancient past. Born into poverty in a society famed for its class consciousness, the 45-year-old businesswoman had defied the odds to become one of the world's most important scientific figures.

Though Anning didn't receive her due credit from the male naturalists who reaped the benefits of her labors, word of the fossil-hunter's many achievements still managed to spread far and wide during her lifetime. So it was with complete honesty that this daughter of a poor carpenter casually told the King's physician, "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe." And years after her death, her legacy would live on in the English language's most famous tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

A Dirty, Dangerous Job

The seashore where Anning's shop was located was on the English Channel in southwestern England, in a town called Lyme Regis. With its towering cliffs and tannish-white beaches, Lyme Regis has long been a prime vacation destination. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, affluent Britons made it their seasonal home away from home. Meanwhile, the poorer citizens who lived in Lyme Regis year-round struggled to make ends meet.

Many supplemented their income by cashing in on the area's natural history. Around 200 million years ago, the Lyme Regis area lay at the bottom of a Jurassic sea. In Anning's time—and today—fossilized remains of marine animals from this period can be found protruding from the cliffs and scattered along the beaches that surround the coastal town. Realizing that rich tourists would pay a pretty penny to take home one of these natural curiosities, fossil hunters started selling their finds throughout Lyme Regis.

One of them was Mary's father, Richard Anning, a carpenter by trade. But even with two revenue streams, he struggled to provide for his family, and their life was marked by tragedy. Richard's wife, Molly, gave birth to their first child, Mary, in 1794, and a son, Joseph, in 1796. Mary died when she was just 4 after her dress caught on fire; Molly was pregnant with her third child at the time, and when she gave birth six months later, on May 21, 1799, she named the newborn girl Mary. A year later, the second Mary almost died as well when she, her nurse, and two female companions were struck by lightning while walking on the beach. All three women died, but Mary survived.

Of the Annings' 10 children, only Mary and Joseph reached adulthood. As they grew up, Richard taught them everything he knew about the fossil-collecting business, and he even made Mary a rock hammer so she could excavate small fossils for herself.

Fossil hunting was a perilous job, and over the years, the Annings had many close calls with rockslides and rapidly flooding shorelines. That's how Richard himself died in 1810. Out on an excursion that winter, he lost his footing and fell off a cliff. Months later, injuries sustained from the accident—coupled with a serious case of tuberculosis—claimed his life. He was 44 years old.

Following his death, Molly took charge of the family fossil shop, which basically consisted of a display table that the Annings would set up in front of their modest cottage near the River Lym. Keeping this business afloat was an economic necessity for Molly and her children—Richard had saddled them with a large debt.

"These Valuable Relics of a Former World"

Drawing of Ichthyosaurus from The American Museum Journal, circa 1900.American Museum of Natural History, Wikimedia Commons // No Restrictions

The family struggled for a year until, in 1811, Joseph—who was working as a part-time upholsterer's apprentice—discovered the 4-foot-long skull of an ancient marine reptile. Joseph and a hired team excavated the head, but Mary thought more bones might still be found. The following year, she returned to the site and proceeded to expose an entire spinal column, a set of ribs, and other bones.

Thrilled by her discovery, Mary recruited an excavation team of her own. As the creature's remains were slowly removed from the rock, the group realized that they had a genuine sea monster on their hands: When it was reunited with its skull, the specimen measured an amazing 17 feet long.

The remains belonged to a dolphin-like animal that would later be called Ichthyosaurus, which means "fish-lizard." Although the Annings did not discover the first known specimen of this genus (as some sources wrongly report), theirs was the most complete skeleton known at the time and therefore became the first to attract interest from Great Britain's scientists. The fossil was sold to Henry Hoste Henley, the Lord of Colway Manor, for £23. That's the equivalent of more than £1600 or $2000 in today's money—enough to purchase six months of food for the Anning family.

The Annings' ichthyosaur subsequently made its way to the British Museum, where, according to Hugh Torrens, a history of science professor at Keele University, "it aroused great interest as a denizen of the new world that the embryonic science of paleontology was beginning to reveal" [PDF]. When news of the sea dragon spread, the Annings—particularly Mary—became household names in Lyme Regis and beyond.

But fame has never guaranteed fortune. Even after the sale of Mary and Joseph's ichthyosaur, the family remained in dire economic straits for nearly a decade. Thankfully, an 1820 charity auction thrown in their honor by the wealthy fossil-collector Thomas Birch helped give the Annings some much-needed financial stability.

In 1824, Mary Anning met Lady Harriet Silvester, a rich London widow who was blown away by the self-taught beachcomber's paleontological expertise. "The extraordinary thing in this young woman," Silvester wrote in her diary, "is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved … It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

As the 1820s unfolded, Mary took over the reins of the shop from her mother—and running the shop was just one of her obligations. She was also primarily responsible for acquiring its new fossils. Molly had never been one for collecting, and Joseph's upholstery career was taking off. Combing the beaches, Mary came across many astonishing new specimens—including a few more Ichthyosaurus skeletons. As the Bristol Mirror reported in 1823, "This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world." The publication also noted that it was "to her exertions we owe nearly all of the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections."

Pride, Prejudice, and a Plesiosaurus

An 1823 letter by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus.Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 10, 1823, Mary made the discovery of a lifetime. While scouring the beach in the shadow of Black Ven cliff, she came upon a fossilized skull that was like nothing she'd seen before. The majority of the skulls she had found belonged to ichthyosaurs; they were long and narrow, a bit like the heads of dolphins or crocodiles. This skull, on the other hand, was small, beady-eyed, and had a mouthful of strange, needle-shaped teeth.

Working with some nearby villagers, Anning unearthed the rest of the mystery creature's body, which looked even stranger than the skull did. Attached to a stout torso and broad pelvis were four flippers and a diminutive tail. But the most peculiar thing about the animal was the long neck that accounted for nearly half of the 9-foot creature's length.

Anning contacted one of the only men in Europe who might fully appreciate her find: the paleontologist Reverend William Buckland. In conversations about the newborn science of paleontology, she could hold her own with anyone, experts like Buckland included. The 24-year-old devoured every scrap of fossil-related news published in the scientific journals of her time; this autodidact even taught herself French so that she could read articles published in that language. This is how Anning knew that some paleontologists—including Buckland and Reverend William Conybeare—believed that a few fossil bones previously attributed to Ichthyosaurus really belonged to an as-yet-unidentified kind of marine reptile. Conybeare had even come up with a name for this new beast: Plesiosaurus.

In her letter to Buckland, Anning provided a detailed sketch of her newest discovery. "I may venture to assure you that it is the only [Plesiosaurus skeleton] discovered in Europe," she told the scientist. This wasn't an empty boast: Anning had indeed found the first articulated Plesiosaurus remains known to science. Prior to that, nobody had any idea about what this mysterious animal looked like. Once he finished reading Anning's description, Buckland talked Richard Grenville, the first Duke of Buckingham, into buying the skeleton.

The animal's proportions were so bizarre that some scientists cried foul. Upon seeing a copy of Anning's sketch, the legendary French anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier was worried that the fossil was a hoax. In a letter to Conybeare, Cuvier suspiciously noted that "This discovery … surpasses all those that have been made so far [in Lyme Regis] and there is nothing more monstrous that one could expect to see" [PDF]. How could an animal with such an absurdly long neck possibly exist? The Baron felt that it didn't. Intensely skeptical of the find, Cuvier accused Anning of affixing a fossil snake's head and vertebrae to the body of an Ichthyosaurus. However, when it later became clear that her specimen had in no way been tampered with, the anatomist was forced to eat his words.

Famous, but Underappreciated

At an 1824 Geological Society of London meeting, Conybeare stole the show with a well-received presentation on the nearly complete Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis. That same year, he published a paper on the specimen featuring detailed original illustrations. Neither his presentation nor his paper mentioned Anning by name.

Conybeare was just one of many scientists who furthered their own careers by writing papers about fossils that Anning had found. They rarely gave her credit, and to make matters worse, she couldn't publish her own findings in reputable journals because their editors didn't accept submissions from women. (One man who did give her credit when it was due was—perhaps surprisingly—Cuvier. "I see, however, that a skeleton discovered by Mademoiselle Marie Anning on the coast of the county of Dorset, although only five feet long, has not been allowed to be related to this species," he wrote in 1824.)

Nonetheless, institutionalized sexism didn't prevent Mary from continuing to make major discoveries. In 1824, she unearthed the first pterosaur skeleton that had ever been found outside of Germany. Anning was also probably the first person to identify fossilized poop, or a coprolite. (Sadly, Buckland—a frequent correspondent of hers—would subsequently take credit for this scatological breakthrough.) By 1826, she had earned enough money from fossil sales to relocate her family to a cottage on upper Broad Street. The main room on the ground level became the Annings' new store, complete with an attractive storefront window. It quickly emerged as a major tourist attraction, particularly for geology buffs. It hosted such celebrity visitors as Gideon Mantell, who, in 1825, had announced the discovery of Iguanodon, the first herbivorous dinosaur known to science.

But she was deprived of the formal recognition she longed for and deserved. Allegedly, when a young admirer penned a letter to Anning, she replied, "I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone" [PDF]. Anning would often confide in her good friend Maria Pinney, who once observed, "She says the world has used her ill and she does not care for it, according to her account these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

Through it all, Anning never stopped fossil-hunting, even though it remained a perilous business. Once, in 1833, Anning was nearly killed by a sudden landslide that crushed her beloved black-and-white terrier, Tray, who liked to accompany her on the beaches."“[The] death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me," Anning told a friend. "The cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate."

By the mid-1830s, Anning's fortunes had begun to falter because of a bad investment. In 1835, Buckland, moved by her plight, talked the British Association for the Advancement of Science into granting Anning a £25 yearly annuity in honor of her outstanding contributions to paleontology. This kind gesture essentially amounted to the first significant acknowledgement by professional scientists of her achievements. Her bottom line in these lean years was bolstered by the occasional big purchase made by such fossil shop patrons.

The scientific community once again came to Anning's aid when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1846. As soon as the Geologic Society learned of her diagnosis, its members began raising money to cover her medical expenses. Anning died on March 9, 1847. Her funeral was paid for by the Geological Society, which also financed a stained-glass window dedicated to her memory that now sits at St. Michael's Parish Church in Lyme Regis.

Her amazing deeds were commemorated by Charles Dickens nearly two decades later. Though he probably never met Anning in person, the author of A Christmas Carol wrote a moving essay about her 18 years after she died. "Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder" ran in the February 1865 edition of his literary periodical All The Year Round. "Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science," Dickens wrote. "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it."

She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

You might not be familiar with Anning's name, but you've certainly heard of her, even if you didn't realize it. In 1908, songwriter Terry Sullivan—who penned a number of catchy ballads for British music halls—wrote a song widely believed to be about Anning's life whose lyrics have since been recited by just about every English-speaking person on Earth:

"She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I'm sure she sells sea shore shells."

And today, Anning—long overlooked by her contemporaries—is finally getting her due. The self-taught paleontologist is now a revered figure in paleontology circles. "More than anyone else at the time," Hugh Torrens said, "she showed what extraordinary things could turn up in the fossil record." The late evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould shared this esteem for her. In his 1992 book Finders Keepers, Gould wrote that "Mary Anning [is] probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology."

This story was republished in 2019.

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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The Magnetic Appeal of Wooly Willy

Patch Products
Patch Products

Iron filings don’t seem like obvious playthings. They’re extremely unpleasant if swallowed, can cause great harm to the eyes, and are best not inhaled. Yet they are at the core of one of the world’s best-loved toys: Wooly Willy.

Back in good ol’ 1955, the width of the country away from where Marty McFly was reuniting his parents, an icon was born. Smethport, Pennsylvania, had a few claims to fame already—it was home to America’s first dedicated Christmas store and also held the dubious honor of being Pennsylvania’s coldest town. But a cheerful, hairless, two-dimensional man was about to change that.

James Reese Herzog—himself a three-dimensional man with a fine head of hair—was working in his father’s toy factory, the Smethport Specialty Company, where they mainly produced spinning tops and magnet sets. "The ends of the magnet had to be run across a grinding wheel to make them level and it created a lot of dust. I came in and ground the magnets one day and all of a sudden it came to me," Herzog later wrote in American Profile of the genesis of his idea for Wooly Willy, a classic toy that lets kids wield a tiny wand to create a variety of hairstyles on an otherwise bald cartoon face. "I put a pile of dust on a piece of cardboard and used magnets to play around with it."

At around the same time, the Army was using new techniques with plastic to make three-dimensional maps. Known as vacuum-forming, the process involves a sheet of plastic being heated and then shaped around a mold. Herzog’s brother Donald learned about this and suggested it could be used to contain what would be Wooly Willy’s hair. Leonard Mackowski, an artist from nearby Bradford, Pennsylvania, was recruited to create Willy’s face, and the Herzogs found themselves with a brand-new product.

Sadly, even with its tiny 29-cent price tag, it was a product nobody wanted. James Herzog recalled one retailer describing Wooly Willy as the worst toy he had ever seen. Eventually one store owner placed an order for 72 of them, partly to prove a point that they would never sell and encourage the Herzogs to move on from what he saw as manifestly a terrible idea. Two days later he called back and ordered 12,000. Wooly Willy was a phenomenon.

Over the years, Wooly Willy has spawned countless imitators. Some, like Dapper Dan the Magnetic Man, were produced by the Smethport Specialty Company. But many more were simply "inspired" by Wooly Willy.

As Herzog said, the packaging was the product, which made manufacture extremely inexpensive. So along came Mr Doodleface and Hair-Do Harriet, Baby Face and Hairless Hugo, as well as the horror-inspired Thurston Blood, Eaton Brains, I. Sockets, and Ben Toomd. There have been official Simpsons versions, not-particularly-official-looking Beatles versions, and mentions everywhere from Family Guy to That ‘70s Show. Wooly Willy is everywhere, from this incredibly impressive real-life homage to this all-Bill Murray tribute. He’s been named as one of the 100 most influential toys of the 20th century by the Toy Industry Association.

The original, official version, complete with Smethport name-drop (and artist Mackowski’s signature hidden in the artwork), has sold a staggering 75 million units in the 65 years since its creation. That’s more than 1 million a year—an incredibly difficult figure to sustain for that long, especially for a product that has changed so little, hasn’t lent itself to multimedia spinoffs, and isn’t what you might call high-tech.

It’s been a dollar-bin staple, filled countless party bags, and made umpteen long car rides go by faster. Herzog attributes Wooly Willy's success to its simplicity: You don’t need to put hours of effort in, or have any artistic flair whatsoever, to get fun results. It’s a happy-looking man with silly hair, and that’s it.