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)
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 <a target="_blank" —> Read More

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