Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

Researchers prepare for a flight in the stratosphere balloon. Photo by Richard Hewitt Stewart.



One hundred years ago this month, the Society held its annual banquet in downtown Washington, celebrating the new art of aviation that was transforming the U.S. military.  President William Howard Taft was in attendance, as were the ambassadors of Great Britain, Germany, Mexico & the Ottoman Empire.  However, one name on the guest list who addressed the attendees that evening stands out–that of Wilbur Wright, one-half of the Wright Brothers who made aviation history.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.  In 1910, Alexander Graham Bell presented them with the Smithsonian’s Langley Medal.  Known worldwide as the inventor of the telephone, Bell was also an aviation enthusiast (as well as Geographic’s second president) who had predicted back in 1893, “I have not the shadow of a doubt that the problem of aerial navigation will be solved within ten years.  That means an entire revolution in the world’s methods of transportation and of making war.”

On a lighter note, Bell’s wife, Mabel, the daughter of the Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, had noted his obsession with flight on their honeymoon when he spent most of one day sketching birds in flight.   She wrote to her mother, “What a man my husband is!  I am perfectly bewildered at the number and size of the ideas with which his head is crammed…Flying machines to which telephones and torpedoes are to be attached occupy the first place just now from observations of sea gulls.”

From the earliest days of aviation, the Society has been an avid reporter of advances as well as a supporter.  Bell continued his kite experiments, reported in National Geographic, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expeditions appeared throughout the years.  A Geographic cartographer, Albert Bumstead, designed a sun compass to help Byrd navigate near the poles when traditional magnetic and gyroscopic compasses became useless.  And William “Billy” Mitchell, father of the U.S. Air Force, penned an article in 1921 entitled “America in the Air.”

In the mid-1930s, the Geographic sponsored the Army’s stratosphere balloon flights, with Explorer II establishing a new height record of 72,395 feet that would last for 21 years.  When in the late 1950s the United States initiated a space program in earnest, combining aeronautics with exploration on an unprecedented scale, the Geographic saw an opportunity to publish in its pages and in its own distinctive style a permanent record of the American space effort.  The Society felt so strongly about the importance of space coverage that in 1960 President and Editor Melville Bell Grosvenor donated the full-time services of legendary staff photographer Luis Marden to NASA–making him technically, if temporarily, a NASA employee–in order to obtain for the nation (and of course, for the Geographic as well) the best possible color photographic record of these historic developments.

The Society’s interest in all things airborne is too extensive for a blog posting, but its’ attitude can be summed up in the words of past Society president and editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor: “We should not be content to ruminate on past glories.  How much more fitting it is to look beyond the horizon, upward at the skies, and forward to tomorrow.”

–Mark Jenkins & Cathy Hunter

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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.
This entry was posted in Anniversaries & Current Events, NGS History. Bookmark the permalink.

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