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123rd Anniversary of the National Geographic Society

By NG Archivists Cathy Hunter and Renee Braden

Today the National Geographic Society celebrates 123 years of carrying out our mission to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge and to explore the world and all that’s in it.

That very first gathering on January 13, 1888, is portrayed in a painting that hangs at NG headquarters in Washington, D.C. The painting was done for the Society’s 75th birthday in 1963. Unfortunately, the artist, Stanley Meltzoff, seems to have been guided by photos of the founders taken later in their lives. Looking eminently Victorian and respectable in the painting, in reality they were much younger — their average age was only 42 and many were in the prime of their careers. Indeed the youngest, Robert Muldrow, was only 24 years old.

meltzoff-founders-painting.jpgThis painting recreates the first gathering of the National Geographic Society, but shows the early members much older than they were at the founding.

Among them were trailblazing government scientists (many working for the U.S. Geological Survey) and early conservationists who spent their summers charting new territory west of the Mississippi. They usually made their way back to Washington to draft reports and make plans for the next year’s field work.

On that evening, they got together at Washington’s Cosmos Club, then located on Lafayette Square, to discuss forming an organization “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The language reflects the formality of the times and was derivative of the that of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846, whose mission was and is the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Having set an admirable course on the night of Jan. 13, the meeting adjourned, and these busy scientists got back to their regular work.

The newly formed National Geographic Society would increase geographic knowledge by funding new research; it would diffuse it through a lecture series and a journal of the organization’s activities. With little or no money in its coffers, the “increase” part of the mission took awhile to live up to. On the diffusion side, things went a bit better.

The lecture series got off to a quick and fairly successful start. Just a month later on Feb. 17th, John Wesley Powell gave a talk on “The Physiography of the United States”. Following every few weeks were talks such as William E. Curtis on “Patagonia”, J.R. Bartlett on “Physical Geography of the Sea”, and (presumably) Henry Gannett on “The Proposed Physical Atlas of the U.S.”

ngm-jan-1911-cover.jpgThe journal, aptly titled the National Geographic magazine, had an interesting if fitful start. Coming out sporadically for almost a decade, it had a dry and scholarly look. A handful of the board members served as “editors,” gathering articles, announcements, and book reviews for publication. One hundred years ago, the January 1911 issue (seen at right) featured articles by
Theodore Roosevelt and NGS founder and noted geologist Henry Gannett.

It also had several early incarnations–five different cover formats before settling on the classic look that our grandparents and parents grew up with. (See a gallery of 50 years of great covers.) But when it hit its stride, it never looked back. Innovations in photography, printing, mapmaking, and a clear editorial voice made the once tiny “journal” the driver of membership for the whole organization and an icon of American publishing. One hundred years ago, the January 1911 issue featured articles by Theodore Roosevelt and NGS founder and noted geologist Henry Gannett.

Fast forward to January 2011: The Society has given out over 9,400 research grants and can claim significant contributions to quite a few branches of science, and our diffusion is a global brand of publications, products, and services that inspire, educate, and entertain. Explorers, photographers, and others speak at NG Events across the US and abroad. The magazines for adults and children thrive, and the current NGM cover story addresses the wild growth of world population to 7 billion over the past century. The National Geographic Channel is shown in dozens of countries, and more than 4 million people around the world participate in the conversation on our Facebook page and on Twitter, continuing the adventure that started 123 years ago today.