The History of the National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888. It is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Its interests include geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.

National Geographic Society is recognized world-wide as journalism's most trusted name in exploration and discovery. From its founding in 1888, the National Geographic Society has developed the iconic National Geographic magazine as well as the popular National Geographic Traveler and hundreds of books, maps, videos, and images.

Birth of the National Geographic Society

In early January 1888, a small invitation was received by a number of gentlemen prominent in Washington, D.C.'s scientific and intellectual circles. It read:

DEAR SIR: You are invited to be present at a meeting to be held in the Assembly Hall of the Cosmos Club, Friday evening, January 13, at 8 o'clock, for the purpose of considering the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.

Very respectfully yours,

Gardiner G. Hubbard, A.W. Greely, J.R. Bartlett, Henry Mitchell, Henry Gannett, A.H. Thompson

“For the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge...” That would have had a familiar ring to most of the invitation's recipients. After all, the Smithsonian Institution, perhaps the leading scientific organization in the city, had been established “for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men.” Other learned societies used some variation of the phrase. Perhaps this proposed new society would play an equally distinguished role in the city's intellectual life. Perhaps it would disseminate the results of government-sponsored research, for many of the invitees were associated with Washington's numerous government bureaus charged with the exploration of the continent. Whatever the possibilities envisioned, the Cosmos Club and its building on Lafayette Square were well known as the place where Washington's scientific elite gathered to exchange ideas and enjoy the stimulation of mutual fellowship. Thus on the appointed evening, Friday, January 13, the Assembly Hall duly filled with those gentlemen--33 in all--sufficiently intrigued by the proposition to make their way through fog and drizzle to attend. When they left several hours later, animated by brandy and discussion, warmed by the fire, they had agreed that it was indeed “advisable and practicable” to organize a geographic society “on as broad and liberal a basis” as the dictates of dignity might permit. They had also agreed to return the following Friday evening to discuss a draft constitution and plan of organisation.

The proposed geographic society swelled with friends and colleagues of similar interests and motivations. The following Friday night, January 20, nearly twice their number met in the Assembly Room and decided to incorporate themselves as a geographical body, an act accomplished one week later still, on the afternoon of Friday the 27th, when 15 of their number signed a Certificate of Incorporation formally affiliating themselves as the National Geographic Society. That evening the new organization--165 members strong--officially assembled for the first time in the Cosmos Club to elect its first slate of officers.

Future generations, however, point to that evening's preliminary meeting--Friday the 13th, as fate would have it--as the true beginning of the Society, and canonize the 33 gentlemen in attendance as its original founders. Boston lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard was seen as a father figure and guiding spirit. Explorers John Wesley Powell and Adolphus W. Greely embodied the archetypes of the organization's aspirations. Geographer Henry Gannett is remembered as one of its most important early influences.

Of these 33, many remained only briefly with the National Geographic Society before other responsibilities or other opportunities carried them away. A handful continued to play a significant role, guiding and inspiring the organization through its formative years. But surely no one had any earthly idea that having just agreed to establish a society for the “increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge” on as broad and liberal a basis as possible, they had sown seeds that bore fruit for a century and more, inspiring future generations.

The History of the National Geographic Magazine

When National Geographic debuted in 1888 as a scholarly, scientific journal, it reflected the interests of its small, mostly professional, readership. Between its conservative, brown covers, there were no photographs--only studious articles that discussed such topics as “Geographic Methods in Geologic Investigation” and “The Great Storm of March 11-14, 1888.”

In an era before television and movies, when travel was still a luxury reserved for the wealthy, the National Geographic Society delivered a world of adventure to its Washington members by inviting explorers to deliver talks about their adventures.

In 1889, National Geographic published its first colour illustrations--pastel drawings of scenes from Nicaragua--as well as the first authoritative four-color foldout map, which soon became an important part of the magazine.

In 1897, Alexander Graham Bell was elected president of the Society and wanted to produce a magazine that appealed to a wide range of people, not just the scientific elite. And he insisted on “pictures, and plenty of them.” “THE WORLD AND ALL THAT IS IN IT is our theme, and if we can't find anything to interest ordinary people in that subject, we better shut up shop and become a strict, technical, scientific journal for the high class geographers and geological experts.” He told his editors to “let the world hear from you as our representative. Leave science to others and give us a detail of living interest beautifully illustrated by photographs.”

The success of National Geographic meant increased support for exploration and discovery. By 1912 the magazine had become THE publication of record for discovery.

World War I underscored the growing national reach and importance of National Geographic magazine. Its maps allowed readers to follow the developments of the war. Large maps of the fighting fronts continued to be published throughout the conflict, and National Geographic kept members informed of the history and culture of the warring countries with articles on “The World's Debt to France,” “Belgium's Plight,” and “The German Nation.” It featured stories on conditions at the front and on the flags and iconography of the world.

As membership in the Society soared past a million in 1926, National Geographic dispatched “photographic expeditions” to the Caribbean and South America, to Western Europe and the Balkans, and to Asia. Professional writers and photographers became the explorers; accurate and penetrating documentation became the science of the expedition.

In the 1930s, “miniature” 35mm cameras paired with a dazzling new colour film, Kodachrome, to revolutionize the magazine. Kodachrome offered the richest colour yet--action photographs were possible for the first time.

During World War II, National Geographic maps and photographs were used widely by the military. One high-ranking general wrote to the editor in 1946 that the Geographic files “proved to be the richest and most helpful single source of pictorial material” that the armed forces had.

National Geographic sponsored more than 100 expeditions from the 1920s through the 1950s. Explorations in these decades sought to probe the planet's physical extremes--from pole to pole, from the tallest peaks to the deepest ocean trenches.

The 1960s brought about a magazine practically exploding in colour. Photographic and printing innovations allowed National Geographic to explode with colour. Whatever the subject--the Italian Riviera, New Guinea tribesmen, hummingbirds, or sleep jet aircraft--it was presented in dynamic new layouts. A new force swept across the nation: the environmental movement. For the next two decades the Geographic embraced a new perspective--before, picturing hunting trips and specimen collecting in Africa and Asia; now, drawing attention to the plight of elephants, pandas, rhinoceros, and whales. The magazine documented the ravages of pollution and summarized the challenges of pesticides, nuclear power, and acid rain. Remaining strictly impartial, it presented all sides of complex technological and ecological issues.

The National Geographic Society became bigger than the Earth when Neil Armstrong carried a small National Geographic flag in July 1969 when he became the first man to stop on the surface of the moon.

Science holds a particular fascination for readers, and National Geographic earned a reputation for clear presentation of complex topics and difficult subjects in an easily accessible manner, fully illustrated with diagrams and maps.

The National Geographic brings the world of geography--in its broadest sense--to some 60 million readers around the globe each month. With comprehensive, timely articles and legendary photographs and maps, the magazine documents life on our planet and beyond, and interprets the world's sweeping changes through the lens of personal experience. Through the decades, National Geographic has brought its readers gripping first-person accounts of epic exploration and discovery. Now combined with a powerful user interface, the digital National Geographic Virtual Library provides students and researchers of all ages a graphical, easy-to-use method of accessing the wealth of material from National Geographic magazine, along with a cross-searchable collection of National Geographic books, maps, images, and videos.