National Geographic Society Turns 115

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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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