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

Today National Geographic magazine brings the world to readers through 23 different local-language editions, ranging from Japanese to Turkish, from Swedish to Thai. Additional magazine titles and book publishing have been natural outgrowths of that initial experiment.

And it was venturesome to tackle new media. The television business is fraught with peril; the Society risked it anyway—and now is known as much for its television documentaries as for its publications. Today the new National Geographic Channel is the fastest growing cable channel in the United States. When the new world of the Web was unveiled, the Geographic again turned pioneer—and established (yes, dear reader) an award-winning Web site.

Venturing can be just another word for exploring the old-fashioned way. Over the years, Geographic expeditions and scientific projects—now over 7,000 in all—have climbed mountains, crossed glaciers, fought jungles, endured sandstorms, retrieved fossils, tracked animals, mapped stars, and generally plumbed new reaches of land, sea, and sky. Peary, Shackleton, Byrd, Cousteau, Leakey, Goodall, Ballard—are just a few of the names echoing down the quiet halls tonight.

Reformers can be just as bold as explorers. Today the Society is fully engaged in a fight to improve the quality of geographic education in American classrooms—so that future generations, too, may know more of the world upon which they will live.

Today, pressing problems in ecological sustainability are looming, and may present us with the biggest challenges we've ever faced. So the Society's current president, John Fahey, is thus looking ahead when he says, "Our first century was about exploration. Our second should be about exploration and conservation."

"Fare forward, voyagers," urged the poet T.S. Eliot. Don't gaze back; set your face to the wind. But we may be pardoned our momentary linger. After all, 115 years of faring forward, of venturing in new directions, have given us a global reach that now incorporates millions. Much work, however, remains to be done. So we tip our hats to the 33 visionaries in that small room, and when the lights turn on in the morning and the halls come alive again—it's just another day at the geography trade.

Mark Jenkins is a historian at the National Geographic Society.

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