Happy Birthday to us—123 and counting!

Cover of the January, 1888 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Today’s the day we wish ourselves a happy birthday and many more, especially since we will be celebrating the big 125 in just two years.  For you Latin lovers out there, that’s a quasquicentennial.  (Thankfully, we’ve got two years to practice our pronunciation!)

That very first gathering on January 13, 1888 is portrayed in a painting which hangs in Hubbard Hall at Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The painting was done for the Society’s 75th birthday in 1963.  Unfortunately, the artist, Stanley Meltzoff seems to have been guided by photos of the founders taken later in their lives.  Looking eminently Victorian and respectable in the painting, in reality they were much younger – their average age was only 42 and many were in the prime of their careers.  Indeed the youngest, Robert Muldrow was only 24 years old.  Among them were trailblazing government scientists (many working for the U.S.G.S.) and proto-conservationists who spent their summers charting new territory west of the Mississippi.   Then they usually made their way back to Washington to draft reports and make plans for the next year’s field work.  On that evening, they got together at the Cosmos Club, then located on Lafayette Park, to discuss forming an organization “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.”  The language reflects the formality of the times and was derivative of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846, whose mission was and is the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  Having set an admirable course on the night of January 13, the meeting adjourned, and these busy scientists got back to their regular work.

The newly formed National Geographic Society would increase geographic knowledge by funding new research; it would diffuse it through a lecture series and a journal of the organization’s activities.  With little or no money in its coffers, the “increase” part of the mission took awhile to live up to.  On the diffusion side, things went a bit better.

The lecture series got off to a quick and fairly successful start.  Just a month later on February 17, John Wesley Powell gave a talk on “The Physiography of the United States”.  Following every few weeks were lectures such as William E. Curtis, on “Patagonia”, J.R. Bartlett, on “Physical Geography of the Sea”, and (probably) Henry Gannett, on “The Proposed Physical Atlas of the U.S.”

The journal, aptly titled the National Geographic Magazine had an interesting if fitful start.  Coming out sporadically for almost a decade, it had a dry and scholarly look and a handful of the board members served as “editors” – gathering articles, announcements, and book reviews for publication.  It also had several early incarnations – five different cover formats before settling on the classic look that our grandparents and parents grew up with.  But when it hit its stride, it never looked back.  Innovations in photography, printing, map-making, and a clear editorial voice made the once tiny “journal” the driver of membership for the whole organization and an icon of American publishing.  One hundred years ago, the January 1911 issue featured articles by Theodore Roosevelt and NGS founder and noted geologist, Henry Gannett.

Fast forward to January 2011–we’ve given out over 8,000 research grants and can claim significant contributions to quite a few branches of science.  And our diffusion is a global brand of publications, products, and services that inspire, educate, and entertain.  Happy Birthday, NGS!

—Cathy Hunter and Renee Braden


About Cathy Hunter

I have worked as an archivist at National Geographic for over 20 years and particularly love learning more about our old expeditions.
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