NGS Celebrates 23rd Founders Day

Portrayal of the first meeting of the founders on Janurary 13, 1888. Painted by Stanley Meltzoff in 1962.

By Laura Wallach

On the centennial of National Geographic’s founding in 1888, the board of trustees designated the Friday before Memorial Day weekend “Founders Day” — an annual holiday for staff to honor the 33 people who founded the Society.

Today, Chairman Emeritus Gil Grosvenor considers the day an opportunity “to motivate employees to think about exactly what makes National Geographic great and what differentiates us from other institutions.” He also calls it “a reward to staff for their duty toward the Society’s ideals.”

The mission was clear from the beginning. The men were invited to take part in the “organizing of a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” They met on a stormy night (so the meteorological record tells us) at the Cosmos Club in January 1888. The rest was history.

The group was composed of accomplished world explorers, prominent scientists and Washington elites. Their professions ranged from zoo director to geologist to Arctic explorer.

In the scheme of their achievements, “founding National Geographic is probably the least interesting thing they did,” laughed NG archivist Renee Braden. “And that’s not a bad thing.”

To name just a few of the founders and their accomplishments: John Wesley Powell was well-known for his exploration of the Grand Canyon; George Kennan was one of the first well-known journalists and investigative reporters (the only journalist of the founders); and 24-year-old Robert Muldrow, the youngest of the founders, was the first to measure the height of North America’s highest summit, Mount McKinley.

The Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, was not an explorer, nor did he make any revolutionary discoveries.

“Although not a scientist himself, he believed everyone could appreciate science and its discoveries,” said archivist Cathy Hunter.

Before National Geographic’s inception, Hubbard was fascinated with the work of Scottish teacher of the deaf and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Hubbard helped fund many of Bell’s inventions and insisted he get patents on them. One of Bell’s best-known inventions was the telephone. After working closely with Bell, Hubbard became the first organizer of the telephone industry.

Though he wasn’t one of the original 33 founders, Bell had a major influence on the Society. The magazine was a very serious publication, tailored to the elite and scientists. Its early editions were “very straightforward and without ornamentation like you would have found in a popular magazine,” according to Hunter.

When Hubbard died in 1897, Bell was elected the new Society president. Bell wanted to make the magazine more accessible for members to read with less abstruse academic language. His solution to better communicate science and discoveries was through “pictures, and plenty of them.”

Wrapped up in numerous scientific projects, Bell hired 23-year-old Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor as NG’s first full-time employee at $100 a month. Grosvenor described his office as “two rickety chairs, a small table, a litter of papers and six enormous boxes crammed with Geographics returned by the newsstands.”

Under Bell’s leadership, Grosvenor implemented storytelling in the magazine with striking photographs. At that time, publishing photographs was considered amateur, and even vulgar — only suitable for tabloids. Several outraged founders quit over the matter, but soon realized their mistake and accepted the new visual foundation for the future of the publication.

Bell once said, “The world and all that is in it is our theme, and if we can’t find anything to interest ordinary people in that we better shut up shop.”

Hopefully our founders won’t mind us closing up shop, if only for one day tomorrow, in honor of their ineffable mark on the Society.

Human Journey