The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.
Gardiner Greene Hubbard was not a scientist, but he was a forward-thinking man in a still-young country brimming over with promise and a belief in the marvels of the industrial age. When he met Alexander Graham Bell, something new and bold was bound to result.
Hubbard was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1822, and his ancestors figured prominently in the colonial era. The young Hubbard earned a degree in law and also feverishly pursued various business interests, such as establishing the first trolley line between Boston and Cambridge in 1856. And raise a glass to him the next time you enjoy a craft beer. His farm in Washington State was one of those which pioneered hop growing in the Yakima Valley, now the source of much of hop production in the U.S.
Hubbard’s progressive ideas encompassed education, and when confronted with the challenge of a deaf daughter, he did not shirk from the challenge. Young Mabel lost her hearing at age five after a bout of scarlet fever, and many children like her would have sidelined for the rest of their lives, kept out of society if not actually put in an asylum. However, Mabel received the best of educations, and when she was a teenager, a friend introduced her to a new teacher of the deaf in Boston. Alexander Graham Bell immediately took Miss Hubbard on as a pupil. Bell was a gifted teacher and Mabel thrived even though they had only a few lessons before Bell transferred her to the care of a colleague. For he was falling in love with Mabel. His explanation to her mother, Gertrude Hubbard, was somewhat evasive, but one suspects she grasped the situation immediately. She was sympathetic to the somewhat shabby professor, making sure he was a frequent guest at the house. One night, while seated at the piano, Bell turned to Mabel’s father and said, “Mr. Hubbard, sir, do you know that if I depress the forte pedal and sing ‘do’ into the piano, the proper note will answer me?” His performance produced an instant partnership that would change the world.
Bell’s demonstration of sympathetic vibration that evening was meant to show how the telegraph system could be improved. However, his restless mind hopscotched from one idea to another, including one of a “speaking” telegraph that Hubbard initially deemed less promising. Despite his exasperation over the young man’s seeming inability to finish a project, as well as the inventor’s pining after Mabel, their dreams came to fruition a few years later. Ever the savvy lawyer, Hubbard wasted no time filing the patent for the telephone in 1876, and his careful shepherding of the project insured that every one of the more than 600 challenges came to naught. Bell, for his part, was overwrought when Mabel agreed to marry him. As a wedding gift he signed over most of his telephone stock to his new bride.
Marriage to Mabel meant that Bell naturally fell into the orbit of the National Geographic Society. So when his father-in-law passed away on December 11, 1897, he could not ignore the family’s pleas for him to step in and save the struggling organization. The society had meant so much to Hubbard, and Hubbard had meant so much to Bell. Despite his preference to bury himself in his inventing, he took the helm. As the Society’s second president, Bell set the young society on a stable and profitable course, and one that would bring readers “THE WORLD AND ALL THAT IS IN IT.”