On November 4, 2012, someone asked this question on my college developers mailing list:
Why do many Operating Systems' books have dinosaurs on their front covers?
I just bumped into that thread and thought of publishing my answer from there as a blogpost (with some minor grammar edits).
Peter Baer Galvin, one of the co-authors of this book wrote a blogpost titled History of the Operating System Concepts Textbooks (by Peter B. Galvin), where he talks about the significance of dinosaurs as well as evolution of these animals over covers of different editions of this book:
"The general name for the series is “the dinosaur book” although the covers have included non-dinos as well. As far as we know this series is the best-selling operating system textbook.
The critters on the cover indicate both the evolution of operating systems and the ongoing “OS wars”. I became a co-author on this book in its Third Edition, after it was well established as one of the leading operating systems textbooks by James Peterson and Avi Silberschatz. Over time Peterson went on to other things and Avi and I were joined by Greg Gagne. The First Edition was published in 1983 and was 548 pages long. On its cover were dinosaurs and mammals labeled with the names of the important operating systems of the time, including OS/360, Multics, Scope, OS/MVS, VMS, UNIX, and CP/M. The book was a break-through because it covered not one operating system but abstracted key operating system features and used specific operating systems to illustrate those concepts. This method is still the one employed in the current edition. The Second Edition went disco with the same dinos and mammals but this time lit up in neon. The Third Edition updated the creatures and showed the following operating systems on the cover: OS/MVS, Multics, VMS, UNIX, OS/2, Mach, and MS-DOS. For the Fourth Edition we decided to stop labeling the animals on the cover, but on the inside of the cover we had descriptions of the animals as well as a time-line of operating system evolution. I thought that was cool. The same theme was in the Fifth Edition as well. The Sixth Edition had the animal information but stopped including the timeline."
Fred Brooks' seminal book The Mythical Man Month, which is more about software engineering and project management (and less about operating systems) but it documents Brooks' observations while managing the development of OS/360 at IBM. Paraphrasing Andrew Tanenbaum, the cover of this book "shows a herd of prehistoric beasts stuck in a tar pit":
Quoting Andrew Tanenbaum from his standard text for Operating Systems:
"...There was no way that IBM (or anybody else) could write a piece of software to meet all those conflicting requirements. The result was an enormous and extraordinarily complex operating system [i.e. OS/360].... One of the designers of OS/360, Fred Brooks, subsequently wrote a witty and incisive book describing his experiences with OS/360 (Brooks, 1995). While it would be impossible to summarize the book here, suffice it to say that the cover shows a herd of prehistoric beasts stuck in a tar pit. The cover of Silberschatz et al. (2004) makes a similar point about operating systems being dinosaurs."
So, these cover images were specifically chosen by the authors to convey a hidden but significant concept. As someone aptly said: "A picture is worth a thousand words". But as the Chinese say, aren't 1001 words worth more than a picture? Stumped? Don't worry, it's just a spoof phrase by Turing Award winner John McCarthy.
If you are still reading this blogpost, here's some additional food for thought for you:
Abelson & Sussman's Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is colloquially known as the Wizard Book (due to the wizard on the jacket) as well as Purple Book due to an "amazingly nauseating shade of off-lavender on covers of the first editions".
Aho, Ullman et al. wrote a couple of books on Compilers (Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools and Principles of Compiler Design both of which are referred to as Dragon Book(s). Quoting the Jargon File entry for Dragon Book:
"The classic text Compilers: Principles, Techniques and Tools... so called because of the cover design featuring a dragon labeled ‘complexity of compiler design’ and a knight bearing the lance ‘LALR parser generator’ among his other trappings."
Hopcroft and Ullman's Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation is known as Cinderella Book. Quoting the Jargon File entry for Cinderella Book:
"So called because the cover depicts a girl (putatively Cinderella) sitting in front of a Rube Goldberg device and holding a rope coming out of it. On the back cover, the device is in shambles after she has (inevitably) pulled on the rope."
The Design and Implementation of the 4.3BSD UNIX Operating System book by McKusick et al. is known as Daemon Book. Quoting the Jargon File entry for Daemon Book:
"So called because the covers have a picture depicting a little demon (a visual play on daemon) in sneakers, holding a pitchfork (referring to one of the characteristic features of Unix, the fork(2) system call)."
Programming Perl book by Larry Wall (creator of Perl programming languages) & Randal Schwartz is popularly referred to as Camel Book.
Guy L. Steele Jr.'s Common LISP: The Language book is known as Aluminum Book.
If you have never heard about the Jargon File, it is a glossary and usage dictionary of slang used by computer programmers (which has been maintained for over 40 years now). You can read the Jargon File in it's entirety on Eric S. Raymond's website: http://catb.org/jargon/html/. Alternatively, if you want a dead-tree version of Jargon File, buy revised third edition of The New Hacker's Dictionary published in 1996.