VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
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In 1879, National Geographic founder George Melville boarded a ship called the Jeannette for what would become one of the epic stories in early American Arctic exploration. The men on the expedition hoped to find a warm current that might take them to the North Pole; instead the ship was caught in the polar ice pack and drifted nearly two years before it was crushed.
As a U. S. Navy commander, National Geographic founder Winfield Scott Schley performed several daring feats, including the rescue of fellow National Geographic founder Adolphus W. Greely after Greely and his men became stranded in the Arctic during their disastrous 1881 expedition. But Schley’s conduct in battle left some critics questioning his judgment, calling him not brave, but impetuous.
National Geographic founder A.W. Greely’s expedition to Lady Franklin Bay in 1881 tragically demonstrated the hardships and deadliness of attempts to explore the Arctic. Despite his many other achievements — including leading the relief efforts after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — his reputation would forever be tainted.
National Geographic founder 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.
Otto Tittmann may be one of National Geographic’s lesser-known founders, but his contributions to the Society were held in high regard. So much so that Gilbert H. Grosvenor pulled strings to get a relief bill from Congress that paid Tittmann $150 per month for the rest of his life. Grosvenor told him: “It is not possible to measure the benefits conferred on The Society by your faith in the purposes of The Society and your wise counsels given these forty-seven years without remuneration.”
One of National Geographic’s least-known founders, Herbert Gouverneur Ogden was long associated with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Over the course of his career he compiled several U.S. Coast Pilots for the Atlantic, providing lists of lighthouses, fog signals, and information regarding tides.
From its earliest days, the National Geographic magazine has covered earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and all manner of violent weather. It was National Geographic founder Edward Everett Hayden who set the tone for these dramatic stories with his riveting account of a storm that sunk 185 vessels on the east coast of the U.S. in 1888.
National Geographic founder J. Howard Gore liked to keep busy. He was a man of many talents, including geography, astronomy and geodesy. (That last one, in case you were wondering, is defined as “using mathematics to determine exact positions of points and the figures and areas of large portions of the earth’s surface.”) He was also a man with literary connections. His mother happened to be a great-aunt of the novelist Willa Cather and appeared as the abolitionist Mrs. Bywaters in the novel, Sapphira.
National Geographic founder Willard Drake Johnson learned from the best, assisting the famous geologist Grove Karl Gilbert on his Lake Bonneville research when only 19 years old. Johnson was so enthralled by drama of the natural world that he once wrote fan mail to John Muir, telling him that if he (Muir) were to write a popular physical geography book it would “usurp the place of the novel in the public library.”
A friend of Henry Henshaw’s described him as having an “innate shyness and personal dignity,” along with a “ready wit and a whimsical sense of humor [that] gave him a most attractive personality.” Along with his quiet charm, the ornithologist was a passionate advocate for America’s birds. When he resigned as Chief of the Biological Survey in 1916, he left as his legacy not only the Migratory Bird Bill, but also the Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain, the mother of all subsequent pieces of international conservation legislation. He also left nearly 70 bird sanctuaries.
National Geographic founder William B. Powell may not have had the colorful exuberance of his famous brother, John Wesley, but he was not by any means a timid man. On the contrary, he was a passionate and fierce critic of public and secondary school education. His reformist zeal prompted him to make sweeping changes in outmoded teaching methods and curricula garnered him both acclaim and disapproval. But his legacy to the Society was an early and insistent emphasis on the importance of education, including geography education, in America’s classrooms
Almon Thompson didn’t set out to become an explorer. When he began his career in 1864, after a brief stint as a soldier in the Civil War, it was as a school superintendent in Illinois. It wasn’t until his famous brother-in-law, John Wesley Powell, began inviting him along on his expeditions to the Rocky Mountains that Thompson found his true calling. Diligent and imperturbable, Thompson eventually became a cartographer who was not deterred by gold rushes, Indian scares, and other distractions. He was, as one historian put it, “a man who liked to get things done.”
He wrote engagingly of his many expeditions to the American West–from the otherworldly realm of California’s Mono Lake with its strange tufa formations to the majesty of Alaska’s Mt. St. Elias. But apart from the scientific writings he left behind, the rest of his life remained somewhat hidden from view. Although he was a National Geographic Society founder, he was not prominent in its early activities–with one very important exception. Israel Russell led the first scientific field expedition in National Geographic history.
Biology was a passion of National Geographic founder Clinton Hart Merriam from an early age. One of his early taxidermy specimens was, unfortunately, his sister Florence’s pet cat. But the rifle-toting, teenage naturalist grew up into a well-respected scientist who carried out fieldwork well into his eighties. His colleagues considered him “a splendid fellow” to camp with despite his tendency for serving questionable meals consisting of eagle (his favorite), wildcat, and skunk.
Asked once where he was educated, George Kennan supposedly replied, “Russia.” That one word sufficed, for he was not quite 20 years old when he decided to make his first journey there, a journey that resulted in his first book, in a series of difficult assignments in dangerous places, and in his being a founder of the National Geographic Society. From the horrors of the Russian prison system to the volcanic destruction of Martinique, Kennan was one of the pre-eminent globetrotting journalists of his day–one who wrote with such authority that his words have had far-reaching impact.