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From the top of Mount Everest to the depths of the sea, from the world beneath the microscope to the stars in distant galaxies, the National Geographic Society has reported on “the world and all that is in it” for 125 years. On January 13, 1888, thirty-three men attended a meeting to discuss the “advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge,” and voted to set up such an organization.
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.”
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
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.
Grove Karl Gilbert was considered by his own and future generations to be the greatest of all American geologists, and “a captain bold,” according to Australian geologist E.C. Andrews. But his contributions went beyond field geology. He was the first scientist to hypothesize that the moon’s craters were caused by meteor strikes. (History proved him right.) And in 1888, he helped found the National Geographic Society…
Clarence Dutton was chairman of the now-historic meeting on January 13, 1888, when 33 men agreed to found a geographical society. He was also chairman the following week, when an even larger crowd voted to formalize it as the National Geographic Society. But as the years have passed, Captain Clarence Dutton has slipped from memory. He deserves better. Dutton was a complex mixture — a soldier, geologist, and poet — and his mind and character reflects the judgment he himself passed on the Grand Canyon: that it “first bewilders, and at length overpowers.”