“The members of our Society will not be confined to professional geographers, but will include that large number who, like myself, desire to promote special researches by others, and to diffuse the knowledge... so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live.” --Gardiner Greene Hubbard
From the top of Mount Everest to the depths of the sea, from the world beneath the microscope to the stars in distant galaxies, the National Geographic Society has reported on “the world and all that is in it” for over a century. More than eight million members and an ever increasing global audience turn to the National Geographic Society’s magazines, books, television channel, educational products, and website to increase their understanding of earth, sea, and sky and to spark their sense of wonder.
The seed for this global audience was planted in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1888. A group of 33 of the city’s scientific and intellectual leaders met at the Cosmos Club on that chilly night to consider “the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.”
They were energetic men with widely ranging professions as geologists, geographers, meteorologists, cartographers, bankers, lawyers, naturalists, soldiers, and sailors. What they had in common was the desire to promote scientific study and make the results available to the public. Many were in their 20s and 30s and actively pursuing careers that took them to places far removed from the smoky, high-ceilinged Cosmos Club. They wandered far and wide in the pursuit of science, but each autumn they returned to Washington from fieldwork posts in the deserts of the West, the forests of Alaska, or far out on the oceans. Washington, D.C., was home to most of the federal government’s leading scientific bureaus: the U.S. Geological Survey, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Navy Hydrographic Office, and the Smithsonian Institution, to name a few. In such places they analyzed their data, wrote up their results, and sought funding for another season in the field. They helped transform wintertime Washington into a vibrant city of intellectual activity.
The founders certainly embodied the spirit of adventure and discovery that has come to be associated with the National Geographic Society. Among their ranks was John Wesley Powell, famous for his pioneering exploration of the Grand Canyon, and Adolphus W. Greely, chief signal officer of the U.S. Army and a noted polar explorer who in 1881 had led an expedition to Canada’s Lady Franklin Bay. Though one of his men achieved a new “farthest north” mark, Greely’s expedition ended tragically—just 5 of 25 men survived being marooned for three years without being resupplied, and Greely himself was rescued within hours of certain death. Grove Karl Gilbert, the nation’s leading geologist, was also at the Cosmos Club meeting, as was Henry Gannett, a distinguished cartographer. George Kennan, a former telegraph operator and Russian explorer, had spent years living in Siberia and wrote a book about the experience. Kennan was the lone representative of a profession, journalism, that likely most of the others thought would be of little relevance in the new organization’s future.
Two weeks after the first meeting at the Cosmos Club, the founders elected lawyer and financier Gardiner Greene Hubbard the first President of the fledgling Society. Although not a scientist himself, Hubbard had a keen interest in science and was a staunch supporter of scientific research; most notably, he financed and promoted the experiments of his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher of the deaf who had invented the telephone in 1875.
In his introductory speech, Hubbard emphasized his lack of scientific training, declaring, “by my election, you notify the public that the members of our Society will not be confined to professional geographers, but will include that large number who, like myself, desire to promote special researches by others, and to diffuse the knowledge so gained, among men, so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live.”
As the new Society set these lofty goals, the United States was about to enter a great era of innovation and discovery. In 1888 Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope, a prototype for motion pictures, and George Eastman perfected the box camera and black-and-white roll film. Automobiles and airplanes would soon become new means of transportation, and telegraphs and telephones were beginning to change the way people communicated.
Though much of the world remained to be explored, scientists were amassing knowledge on a tremendous scale. An enormous amount of energy and optimism was afoot, as was the passionate belief that science had the power to correct many of the social and economic defects of a society entering the modern era.
The new National Geographic Society would be a force in this scientific evangelism. Many scientific associations of the period shared this vision. What would set the National Geographic Society apart would be its century- long appeal to the explorer in all of us. That has allowed it to become what it is today: one of the largest scientific and educational associations on the globe, providing a window on the wonders of the world and influencing the lives of millions.
Excerpted from On Assignment With National Geographic by Mark Collins Jenkins. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Collins Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.