We’re 128 Years Old Today. Here’s What We Have to Show for It.

A famed oil painting depicts the original gathering of NGS founders at the Cosmos Club on January 13, 1888. The men look eminently Victorian and respectable in the painting; in reality they were much younger at the time—their average age was only 42 and many were in the prime of their careers. The party hats are a more recent (and digital-only) addition. (Original painting by Stanley Meltzoff)

By Renee Braden, National Geographic Archives

On the cold, wet night of January 13, 1888, (we say in an appropriately dignified tone) 33 gentlemen gathered in the original Cosmos Club located on Lafayette Park near the White House. Among them were trailblazing government scientists and proto-conservationists—men such as John Wesley Powell, Cleveland Abbe, Clarence Dutton, and Henry Gannett.

But dignity might have been the least of their traits and Washington wasn’t their only home. They were mostly field men—traveling the prairies, deserts, mountains, and seas of the Americas. But when they were in town, they were a powerful force in the nation’s capital. They shunned the shallow, fawning culture of the political classes of late 19th century Washington. Instead they turned to each other to try to reform a culture, a government, a country. No small order.

They came to town to do good and they became the intellectual intelligentsia of the city—a community that saw itself as fulfilling two inseparable functions: improving the quality of life at the seat of government by encouraging intellectual pursuits, and using its collective influence to promote national culture, particularly through public science. In other words, the power of science—through advances in both the physical and social sciences—would bring about the betterment and advancement of society. Natural selection at its best.

That night they voted to create an organization to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” We’ve refreshed the phrasing over the years and added to the way we describe who we are and what we do—but the original phrasing has its merits—it is true to what the founders of the Society planned to accomplish.

The night sky on January 13, 1888, re-created in the M Street lobby of National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo by T. Lanza/National Geographic Creative)
The night sky on January 13, 1888, re-created in the M Street lobby of National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo by T. Lanza/National Geographic Creative)

With limited resources but much passion we diffused knowledge right away with lecture programs and a journal. The lecture series got off to a quick and successful start. On February 17, just a month after that first meeting, John Wesley Powell gave a talk on “The Physiography of the United States.” Following every few weeks were lectures such as William E. Curtis, on “Patagonia,” J.R. Bartlett, on “Physical Geography of the Sea,” and Henry Gannett, on “The Proposed Physical Atlas of the U.S.”

We began to work on increasing geographic knowledge in 1890 with a grant to explore the uncharted Mount St. Elias region of Alaska. Board members passed the hat, so to speak, and contributed their own funds to help cover the costs. Since then, National Geographic has funded almost 12,000 grants—mapping, photographing, and studying the world and its inhabitants.  Animal, vegetable, mineral, ocean floor to the stars—we’ve been there, studied it, reported on it, and we we’re not done yet.

To prove it, here’s a list of highlights, one per decade from our first 128 years:

1890s: In the first National Geographic Society field expedition, Society founder Israel C. Russell leads the NGS-U.S. Geological Survey Expedition to the Mt. St. Elias region of Alaska, which sketches out the topography of this vast region and discovers and names Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest peak.

1900s: Although his claim to be first remains controversial, the Society is a sponsor of Robert E. Peary in his attempt to reach the North Pole.

1910s: NGS-Yale University Peruvian Expeditions, led by Hiram Bingham, excavate the fabulous “lost city of the Incas,” Machu Picchu.

1920s: Dr. A.E. Douglass refines the techniques of dendrochronology, or dating by tree rings, while working on the Society-supported Pueblo Bonito project. Dendrochronology will become a major tool in archaeology.

1930s: NGS-U.S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Balloon flight sets a new manned-altitude record of 72,395 feet. That record will stand for 21 years.

1940s: The NGS-Palomar Observatory Sky Survey is a photographic mapping of the entire night sky seen from the Northern Hemisphere that will prove to be one of the most influential contributions in 20th century astronomy.

1950s: The Society begins support of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his undersea explorations by assisting him in the underwater excavation of an ancient Roman cargo ship near Marseille.

1960s: NGS support of Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee studies enables her to observe the first confirmed use of tools by another species besides humans.

1970s: Beginning of many NGS research grants supporting Dr. Eugenie Clark, dubbed the “Shark Lady,” one of the most important American ichthyologists of the 20th century.

1980s: Society support helps Christopher Donnan excavate the splendid royal tomb at Sipan, Peru, the richest pre-Columbian one ever found in the Americas.

1990s: Biologist Michael Fay completes a Society-supported “Megatransect” of the Central African rain forests, walking 1,200 miles over 15 months collecting valuable ecological data along the way. As one result, the president of Gabon set aside over 10 percent of his country to be a chain of national parks.

2000s: Photographer Joel Sartore begins work on Photo Ark, a mission to document as many species as he can while inspiring others to recognize the importance of conservation.

2010s: Lee Berger announces the major discovery of a huge cache of early hominin fossils in a South African cave. Named Homo naledi, the species adds yet another unexpected branch to the human family tree, and the excavation and coverage break new ground in giving open access to discoveries as they are made for researchers and the public alike.

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