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125 years

National Geographic at the forefront of discovery and exploration

Created date

April 23rd, 2013
National Geographic's 125th anniversary

On January 13, 1888, 33 of the nation’s intellectual and scientific leaders gathered in Washington, D.C.—their objective, to create an institution aimed at “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The result was an organization that, to this day, is synonymous with exploration and discovery.

The last 125 years has presented a string of milestones for the National Geographic Society. Under the direction of its first president, financier Gardiner Greene Hubbard, and, shortly thereafter, his son-in-law, noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the society established itself as a beacon in the study of geography.

In October 1888, it published the debut issue of its journal, The National Geographic Magazine, and just two years later, sponsored its first expedition—a survey of Alaska’s Mount St. Elias.

An eager readership

The National Geographic Society had hit the ground running. The magazine that in its early days had a circulation in the thousands, before long was in the hands of millions of readers hungry for knowledge about the world in which they lived.

Short technical articles had given way to epic stories illustrated with maps and photo spreads, introducing Americans to Egyptian pyramids, the Canadian Rockies, and Asian landscapes. By 1914, some of these images appeared in vibrant, life-like color, and the work of correspondents such as Maynard Owen Williams—who documented the opening of King Tut’s tomb in a 1923 issue—brought far-off discoveries into the living rooms of people who had never traveled beyond their hometowns.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th and into the 21st centuries, the National Geographic Society had become an exploratory powerhouse, home to luminaries like Jane Goodall, Robert Ballard (who discovered the wreck of the Titanic), and Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron, the first man to venture nearly seven miles down to the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.

Always relevant

In fact, the 21st century might be the greatest age of science and exploration yet. In its 125th year, National Geographic is very much at its forefront.

“One of the Society’s most impressive features, particularly from a historical perspective, has been its ability to keep up with the vast changes in technology and stay relevant in a world that is constantly evolving,” says Terry Garcia, executive vice president of National Geographic’s mission programs. “There are fewer blank spaces on the map today than there were in 1888, but at the same time, our maps have expanded since then.”

This is due in large part to massive leaps in technology: rockets and shuttles that put human beings in space; submersibles that place the ocean floor within our reach; and computers and satellites that have enabled us to chart virtually every aspect of the globe in 3-D. This is the fascinating, modern age of exploration, and it would have dazzled the Society’s forward-thinking founders.

National Geographic’s core mission programs, which collectively form the grant-making arm of the Society, are all about progress. So far, its review board of scientists and explorers has awarded 10,000 grants in projects that run the gamut, everything from DNA-based genealogy to the analysis of a 2,000-year-old papyrus document that, amazingly, bears the title The Gospel of Judas.

“We have a voracious appetite for new knowledge and discoveries,” Garcia asserts, “and we’re always in need of fresh ideas, unique ways of looking at the planet and at our history. Our intention is to double up on exploration and expand the volume and scope of our efforts.

“We’re in the process of creating regional centers in key parts of the world that will be responsible for finding new talent and ideas. I expect that in the next several years, we’ll see those 10,000 grants grow to 15,000 and even pass the 20,000 mark.”

Indeed, there is no time for rest when you’re in the business of exploring. The National Geographic Society may be celebrating its 125th anniversary, but make no mistake, those at the helm have got their eyes on the future—a mission seemingly without end.