Happy National Geographic’s Birthday

By Renee Braden, NG Archivist

Happy birthday National Geographic! We’re 124 today, and as it happens, our founding day was a Friday the 13th as well. The founders, being of a decidedly scientific persuasion, rejected superstition and braved a cold, slushy night to arrive at the Cosmos Club to discuss the “advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.”

Thirty-three men attended the meeting and voted to set up such an organization. During this period, Washington saw a flurry of intellectual and scientific societies being established. In the decades after the Civil War, the government funded much scientific work and research, and the city had an especially active community of scientists and their supporters. Among this group was a strong belief that the advancement of the natural sciences would lead to the understanding, management and wise development of the country’s natural resources. Out of this group and their beliefs, the conservation and environmental movements would be born.

That very first gathering on Jan. 13, 1888, is portrayed in a painting that hangs in Hubbard Hall, the original building of NG headquarters in Washington, D.C., built in 1902. The men look eminently Victorian and respectable in the painting, with their huge beards and greying hair; 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.

When trying to imagine the men who gathered at that first meeting, it’s more exciting and accurate to picture them passionately debating their work and ideas, or better yet, in the field in steep canyons, along cliffs and mountain tops, splashing through rivers and streams. Essentially, more like today’s grantees and explorers — modern and muddy without the mutton chops.


A painting by artist Stanley Meltzoff depicts the original gathering of NGS founders at the Cosmos Club on Jan. 13, 1888. The men look 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.


The First Expedition
The “increase of knowledge” side of our mission began with promise and passion, but little else. The Society’s officers donated money to fund the earliest expeditions. In 1890, NGS along with the U.S. Geological Service sent out its first team. Led by geologist Israel Russell, the team traveled to the remote Mount St. Elias region of Alaska. Ten men and two dogs, “Bud” and “Tweed,” explored and surveyed the area along the Alaska–Canada border. They completed geologic and geographical studies, mapped about 600 square miles and discovered Mount Logan, the second highest peak in North America.

When the account of the expedition was published in the entire NGM volume of May 29, 1891, along with scientific data, it also included more harrowing moments, as recorded by Russell: “Darkness settled and rain fell in torrents, beating through our little tent. We rolled ourselves in blankets, determined to rest in spite of the storm. Avalanches, already numerous, became more frequent. A crash told of tons of ice and rock sliding down the glacier.”


The Mission Today
Fast forward to January 2012: We’ve reached the incredible milestone of 10,000 research grants, launched and extended the international outreach of our Mission Programs with an office in Sweden and one to come in China, and have added a conservation fund and grantmaking programs for Emerging Explorers and Young Explorers.

We claim significant contributions to many branches of science. And the “diffusion” of our field work is realized through a global media network of publications, products and services that inspire, educate and entertain.

So, happy birthday to NGS from the Archives! We begin the countdown to the milestone of 125 years. In Latin, it’s quasquicentennial. It is a moment to reflect on and reinforce the Society’s role in science and education; a time to appreciate the great work done in the past and the work we all carry on today. But we are not just about looking back; the legacy of our founders compels us to look ahead, to move forward. So let’s celebrate the past by looking to the future, and asking “what next, and how?”


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