National Geographic Society Turns 115

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2003

As darkness settles over Washington, D.C., this evening, the lights in the National Geographic Society headquarters will start to wink out. The offices where books and magazines and television programs are produced, the halls where photographers and teachers and explorers mingle, will start to empty. Another day done; business as usual in the geography trade.

Let us linger, though, for sometime between eight o'clock and midnight, the National Geographic will quietly turn 115 years old. Time to reflect on just how far this globetrotting organization has traveled.

It's not that far in one sense—less than six city blocks lie between today's impressive headquarters complex and the small building near the White House where it all began. But on the night of January 13, 1888, the streets were lit with gaslight, and horse-drawn carriages were drawing up before that small building, which then housed the Cosmos Club, a place where scientists and intellectuals habitually mingled.

Thirty-three men were arriving for a meeting. In an upstairs room, they would discuss a subject of mutual interest, "the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge."

At a quick glance, they all looked the same: bearded gentlemen in stylish frock coats. But on closer inspection, some were weather-beaten and sharp of eye, men who worked in the sun and slept beneath the stars far from city and town. They were geologists, mapmakers, military officers, naturalists—in a word, explorers, and their interest in forming the new society was natural. After all, they were in the geography trade.

Shoulder to shoulder with them, however, were others of more bookish and scholarly appearance—educators, museum directors, civic-minded men of affairs. They wanted to promote geography so that, as one put it, "we may all know more of the world upon which we live."

Birth of a Society

That night both amateur and professional shook hands, and the National Geographic Society was born.

It was not very big. It did not promise much. But like oaks from single acorns grown, today's Society is rooted in that small room—and in one quality present there that soon imbued all the organization's future activities. Call it venturesomeness.

It was venturesome, first of all, to declare that geography was not a discipline marked and bounded by scientific exactitude, but rather a field that embraced nothing less than "the world and all that is in it." This was something new in the geography trade.

It was venturesome to then publish a geography magazine and hope to interest millions in the subject. But the successful outcome of that attempt is well known. By using photography to bring the world to the average person, the yellow-bordered National Geographic flourished—and soon became the magazine no one could throw away.

New Initiatives

Continued on Next Page >>


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