Happy Birthday, Nat Geo

January 27, 2010

It was on this date, January 27, 1888, that the National Geographic Society was founded in Washington DC, for  “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge”.  Today, it is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions. (An article at the Wired Web site has a more detailed account.)

The Society started publishing a journal less than a year after it was founded, but the early publication didn’t bear much resemblance to the iconic yellow-bordered National Geographic magazine of today.  It was originally a scholarly journal, containing a collection of articles,  that was sent out to Society members.  As far as I can tell, there were no pictures !

One of the founding members of the Society was the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who became president of the Society following the death of its first president, Gardiner Hubbard.  When Bell took over, the Society was losing money, and still  had very limited membership.  He decided to emphasize the magazine, and hired a full-time editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, to develop the magazine; he paid Grosvenor out of his own pocket.  The idea of combining membership with the magazine proved to be a success; over the next ten years the Society’s membership increased from 1,400 to 74,000, and increased nearly ten-fold in the following decade.

One of the factors that contributed to the success was the decision to make the magazine’s content more accessible to ordinary readers.  The other was the focus on visually striking photography, which, oddly, came about almost by accident:

Surprisingly, National Geographic’s hallmark photojournalism began as a desperate attempt to fill 11 pages of the January 1905 issue before it went to press.

Fortunately, Grosvenor had received a submission of photographs from Lhasa, Tibet, and decided to include them, even though he didn’t know how they would be received.  Needless to say, the idea caught on, and the magazine has been a leader in photojournalism ever since.

It was the first U.S. publisher to establish a color-photo lab in 1920, the first to publish underwater color photographs in 1927, the first to print an all-color issue in 1962, and the first to print a hologram in 1984.

The Society’s growing revenue stream enabled it to stay true to the scientific spirit of its founders, by financing many well-known exploration projects:

Some notable projects it has sponsored include Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole, Hiram Bingham’s excavation of the ancient Incan city Machu Picchu, Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s underwater exploration, Louis and Mary Leakey’s research on the history of human evolution in Africa, and Diane Fossey’s and Jane Goodall’s respective studies of gorillas and chimpanzees.

It’s also opened at least a small window onto a wider world for a lot of people.  I was given a subscription and membership back when I was in elementary school, and I can still remember how fascinating it was to see pictures of jungles, tigers, glaciers, and undersea creatures, and to realize that there was a lot more out there than I saw routinely in the suburbs of Washington DC.  It prompted my interest in photography and travel, too.

So I hope the Society will be around for many years more, and wish them all the best.  If you are ever in Washington DC, try to make time to drop in at the Society’s headquarters at 17th and M Streets, NW.  There’s always an interesting exhibit or two on offer.

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