National Geographic Society History
Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
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Sales: $500 million (1998)
NAIC: 511120 Periodical Publishers; 511130 Book Publishers; 512110 Video Production
The National Geographic Society today is propelled by new concerns: the alarming lack of geographic knowledge among our nation's young people and the pressing need to protect the planet's natural resources. As our mission grows in urgency and scope, the Society continues to develop new and exciting vehicles for broadening our reach and enhancing our legendary ability to bring the world to our millions of members.
Founded as a club of distinguished gentlemen devoted to promoting the study of geography, the National Geographic Society is the largest educational society in the world and the publisher of one of the world's most widely circulated magazines, National Geographic, as well as National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Adventure. The company is also involved in book publishing, education, public service projects, and television production, but its flagship magazine remains its crowning achievement. Thanks in large part to the efforts of three generations of the Grosvenor family, National Geographic has become a staple of American mass culture. The Society's trustees in recent years have included such notables as Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, Lady Bird Johnson, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, astronaut Frank Borman, and businessman J. Willard Marriott, Jr. Having embraced new media and new techniques in publishing, the Society has brought the far corners of the world to the doorsteps of millions of Americans. Frank Luther Mott, an eminent journalism historian, observed that National Geographic has compiled "a fabulous record of success, especially since the magazine is founded on an editorial conviction that rates the intelligence of the popular audience fairly high."
Eminent Origins in the 1880s
The National Geographic Society was founded in January 1888 in Washington, D.C., by a group of eminent citizens who wanted to promote geographic research and the popular distribution of the results of such research. The charter members of the Society included Alexander Graham Bell; Bell's father-in-law, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard; explorers John Wesley Powell and A.W. Greeley; and scholar George Kennan, uncle of future ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan. Hubbard was one of Bell's early financial backers and had served as the first president of the Bell Telephone Company, the forerunner of AT&T. He was elected to serve as the Society's first president.
The first issue of National Geographic appeared shortly after the Society's founding and was published intermittently until January 1896, when monthly publication began. The early magazine bore little resemblance to the readable, eye-catching National Geographic of later years. Its articles were written in a dry, academic style and bore titles such as "Geographic Methods in Geologic Investigation" and "The Classification of Geographic Forms by Genesis," and there were no illustrations. It is not surprising, then, that circulation remained limited, with less than 1,000 subscribers and negligible newsstand sales.
Gardiner Greene Hubbard died in 1897 and was succeeded as president by his famous son-in-law. When Alexander Graham Bell took the helm, he found the National Geographic Society in a precarious financial state, largely because its magazine had failed to provide a strong revenue base. He soon realized that National Geographic needed two things: a change in editorial policy that would make it a popular scientific magazine rather than a scholarly journal, and a full-time editor who would manifest the changes he sought. Bell hoped to fill both needs in 1899 when he wrote to his friend, historian Edwin Grosvenor of Amherst College, to ask if either of Grosvenor's sons might be interested in assuming editorship. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, then a 23-year-old prep school teacher in New Jersey, accepted.
Having grown up in Istanbul while his father researched his two-volume history of the Turkish capital, Gilbert Grosvenor had become fascinated with foreign lands and peoples at an early age--but he later confessed that he was also drawn to the job by his desire to be near Bell's daughter Elsie, whom he later married.
Grosvenor proved to be the catalyst behind the immensely successful popularization of the magazine. After studying such classic examples of travel writing as Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Charles Dana's Two Year's Before the Mast, Grosvenor concluded that National Geographic articles could be made more readable without sacrificing their educational value. Grosvenor then mandated some stylistic changes for the magazine, including eliminating academic jargon, keeping sentences short and punchy, and replacing scholarly formality and detachment with engaging first-person narrative.
Grosvenor also introduced photographs into the magazine, a step that would gain National Geographic more recognition than its newly accessible style. He knew well the impact that photographs would have; his father's history of Istanbul, published in 1895, was the first scholarly book published in the United States to make extensive use of photoengravings. Though some critics considered it vulgar to run photos in an academic work, the book sold well. Gilbert Grosvenor encountered much opposition from more conservative trustees of the National Geographic Society when the changes that he wished to make became known. He had, however, the firm backing of Alexander Graham Bell, which afforded him the time to prove the editorial merits of his innovations. Skyrocketing circulation (by 1906 the magazine could boast of 11,000 regular subscribers) confirmed his abilities.
Opposition from within the Society's board softened, too. In one incident in December 1904, Grosvenor faced a challenge when the next month's issue was about to go to press with 11 pages blank for want of copy. In that day's mail, however, he found an unsolicited packet containing the first photographs ever taken of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Awed by the photos and desperate for material, he used them to fill the blank pages. He later wrote that he expected to be fired for running an 11-page pictorial spread, but several days after the issue appeared, he was elected a trustee of the Society. Grosvenor ran National Geographic's first color photos in 1910. The magazine remains a pioneer in the journalistic use of photography.
Alexander Graham Bell retired as president of the National Geographic Society in 1903, although he remained a contributor to the magazine and an influential member of the organization until his death in 1922. He was succeeded by a series of short-term chief executives: W.J. McGee served briefly, followed by Grove Karl Gilbert. Willis Moore served from 1905 to 1909. Henry Gannett, a charter member and chief geographer of the U.S. Geological Survey, succeeded Moore and served until his death in 1914. Gannett was succeeded by O.H. Tittman, who resigned in 1919. He was followed by John E. Pillsbury, who served less than a year before his death in December 1919. In 1920 the entire National Geographic Society and its expanding operations became Gilbert Grosvenor's responsibility when he succeeded John Pillsbury as president. Grosvenor remained editor of the magazine, which continued the readable, relatively upbeat style that he had created.
In these early years the Society began its sponsorship of high-profile exploratory, archaeological, and naturalistic expeditions. In 1906 it contributed $1,000 to the Arctic expedition led by Commander Robert E. Peary, with whom the Society had a longstanding professional relationship. In 1909 Peary became the first to reach the North Pole, and the National Geographic Society has basked in this triumph ever since. Another of its early successes was Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham's 1912 expedition to Peru, during which the Inca capital of Macchu Picchu was excavated.
As president of the Society, Grosvenor continued its sponsorship of extraordinary expeditions. The Society provided financial support for Commander Richard E. Byrd's various Arctic and Antarctic voyages between 1925 and 1930, during which he became the first person to fly to the North and South Poles. Byrd was aided by a special compass designed by Albert Bumstead, the Society's chief cartographer, which used the sun for navigation, since magnetic compasses would not work at the poles. In 1935 the Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps co-sponsored Explorer II, a helium balloon that set an altitude record for an occupied balloon that stood until the dawn of the Space Age. In 1939 the Society and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored an expedition to southern Mexico during which archaeologist Matthew Sterling uncovered a Mayan stela, an inscribed tablet, that was the oldest known human artifact from the New World.
National Geographic reached the mass readership that its founders had sought, with a circulation of 500,000 at the end of World War I, and the Society continued to expand its activities. In 1922, after receiving a request for geographical information from the National Education Association, the Society launched a weekly publication designed for classroom use, Geographic School Bulletins. During World War II, the Society opened its photographic and cartographic archives to the United States military. Its vast library of photographs of foreign countries provided intelligence about infrastructure in enemy-held territory and also helped unveil camouflage when compared with the military's own reconnaissance photographs. The Society's maps of distant lands, which it had been accumulating since creating its own cartographic department in 1916, also proved valuable. After the war, the Society received a grateful letter from Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, one of the war's heroes, who reported that a National Geographic map of the South Pacific saved him considerable difficulty in 1942 when the crew members of the B-17 in which he was flying used it to get back on course after losing their bearings in a storm near Guadalcanal. Further, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the Society for a map, and was so impressed with the encased set that was given him that he later asked for and received a similar set to give to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill was so pleased with his maps that after the war, when the Society asked him to return the original set for a new and updated set in order to place the originals in the Society's museum, Churchill politely refused.
The Space Age
After the war, with so much of the Earth's land mass already explored and mapped, the Society turned part of its attention to the last remaining frontier: outer space. It co-sponsored with the California Institute of Technology the ambitious Sky Survey, which would produce the Sky Atlas, the first comprehensive photographic map of the heavens. Work on the Sky Survey began in 1949 and was completed in 1956, using the 48-inch "Big Schmidt" telescope at Palomar Observatory in California.
Almost concurrently, the Society also began its long and successful association with marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The Society sponsored a number of Cousteau expeditions in the 1950s, including the 1956 dive during which he took photographs of the Romanche Trench in the Atlantic Ocean, the deepest point at which photographs had ever been taken. During another National Geographic-sponsored expedition in the mid-1950s, Cousteau shot footage for his Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World.
Gilbert Grosvenor retired in 1954 after 34 years as president of the National Geographic Society and 55 years as editor of National Geographic. He then became chairman of the Society and was succeeded in his former positions by his old friend and longtime assistant editor, John Oliver La Gorce. La Gorce served for three years, then retired and became vice-chairman of the Society. He was succeeded by Grosvenor's son, Melville Bell Grosvenor. Although his father remained the unquestioned sage of the board of directors, the title of CEO was given to the younger Grosvenor.
As editor of National Geographic, Melville Bell Grosvenor expanded the magazine's use of color photography and put a color photo on the cover for the first time. As CEO of the National Geographic Society, he expanded the Society's book publishing operations and also led it into the increasingly ubiquitous medium of television. Film shot by National Geographic photographers had appeared on television since 1955, but always on network programs. Then, in 1958, Grosvenor and longtime staffer Luis Marden decided to produce the Society's own television programs. Three years later, the Society formed its documentary film department. The first Society-produced television special, "Americans on Everest," aired on CBS in 1965.
Gilbert H. Grosvenor died in 1966, and the next year his son retired and became chairman of the Society. In 1970, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Melville's son, assumed the leadership position at National Geographic. He had joined the staff straight from Yale after winning the National Press Photographers Award for coverage of President Eisenhower's tour of Asia in 1951. Before long, Grosvenor became the center of controversy by enacting a subtle shift in National Geographic's editorial policy, easing it away from the uniformly upbeat tone and avoidance of sensitive topics that his father and grandfather had maintained. Under Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the magazine ran major stories on racial turmoil in South Africa, communism in Cuba, and social conditions in Harlem. Although the board of trustees publicly endorsed Grosvenor's editorship, some directors of the Society were scandalized, and conservative media critics accused National Geographic of contracting "a bad case of radical chic." Grosvenor became president of the Society in 1980, leaving the post of editor to his longtime assistant Wilbur Garrett.
Grosvenor took charge of an organization that was, in some ways, the envy of the publishing industry. In 1980 National Geographic boasted 10.7 million subscribers and a circulation of well over 30 million. That year, the Society announced a profit of $3 million on revenues of $217 million, yet the Society continued to refer to its annual profit as a "surplus" and its subscribers as "members," genteel terms used by nonprofit organizations. The Society retained its not-for-profit status and accompanying tax exemptions even though it published one of the bestselling magazines in the world and ran successful book publishing and television production operations. When the Society erected a new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., in 1981 at a cost of $30 million, it paid in cash.
The 1980s would not prove entirely kind to the Society, however. It fielded much criticism for a 1981 cover in which two Egyptian pyramids were digitally manipulated to appear closer together, a technique it promptly abandoned. Circulation figures and advertising revenues from National Geographic remained flat throughout most of the decade. Slowdowns in the economy and increased competition from other popular science magazines presented the greatest threat of decrease in readership since the Great Depression. The Society's television operations received a boost in 1985 when it signed an agreement with cable station WTBS to produce a weekly documentary series, "National Geographic Explorer."
Gilbert Grosvenor had always focused on emerging technologies that could affect the Society's long-term future. In 1981 he speculated openly about the possibility of putting National Geographic and publishing books on video. In 1990 the Society published a multimedia software package called "GTV" in collaboration with Lucasfilm and Apple Computer. "GTV" was designed for use in middle schools and provided interactive lessons in U.S. history. Moreover, the Society was publishing its own catalog of merchandise and exploring the possibility of cooperative ventures, particularly with the catalog and retail firm The Nature Company, hoping to use merchandising as a new source of revenues.
New Horizons at the End of the Century
By the mid-1990s, the Society had sold more than four million home videos. Its for-profit subsidiary, National Geographic Ventures, was producing educational materials in a variety of formats, including a Disney Channel television program called "Really Wild Animals." The group was planning to air the National Geographic Channel on cable and satellite in cooperation with NBC. It also ran the Society's web site and online store, and had established theaters and exhibits at national parks.
One plan to issue National Geographic's entire back catalog on CD-ROM drew criticism from authors' rights groups, however, since no additional royalties were to be paid to writers and photographers for reuse of the work. The set, released on 30 CD-ROMs, retailed for $199.
Upon the retirement of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Reg Murphy, formerly editor or publisher of the Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Examiner, and Atlanta Constitution, moved up to president and CEO of the Society in May 1996. Also during this time, in January 1994, Bill Allen became only the eighth editor in National Geographic magazine's history.
The Society began placing National Geographic on newsstands in 1998, breaking a century of its "members only" tradition. The group had actually tested some issues at the newsstand previously, and had recorded good sales figures in foreign retail outlets. Single-copy sales were expected to account for only a small fraction of total sales. The flagship's sister publication, National Geographic Traveler, introduced in 1984, had been sold at newsstands for seven years.
National Geographic Adventure, the Society's answer to Outside magazine, the leader in the burgeoning adventure travel category, debuted in April 1999. Initially a quarterly, Adventure was expected to be produced monthly by 2001. John Rasmus was the first editor at Adventure; he had previously held that position at Outside and Men's Journal.
As the National Geographic Society entered the 21st century, it boasted three magazines, programs for television and home video, an expanded web site, and two freestanding retail stores in Washington, D.C. Under development were new cable and international television channels and a new magazine. The Society was also seeking partners to capitalize upon the National Geographic brand name via toys, software, and other consumer goods. The Society's magazines were selling record levels of advertising and new foreign language versions surpassed expectations abroad. The Society commemorated the millennium with a seven-part series on global issues.
Principal Subsidiaries: National Geographic Ventures.
- Adams, Mark, "Geographic Shifts," Mediaweek, June 26, 1995, p. 18.
- Behr, Peter, "Geographic: The Wealth of Knowledge," Washington Post, December 7, 1981.
- Conaway, James, "The Geographic's Founding Family," Washington Post, December 19, 1984.
- Granatstein, Lisa, "Looking for Adventure," Mediaweek, July 20, 1998, pp. 17-18.
- Gremillion, Jeff, and Lisa Granatstein, "2000: A Space Odyssey," Mediaweek, February 2, 1998, p. 14.
- Grosvenor, Gilbert H., The National Geographic Society and Its Magazine, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1957.
- Hays, Constance L., "Seeing Green in a Yellow Border," New York Times, August 3, 1997, Sec. 3.
- Kerwin, Ann Marie, "Two New Titles Join Ranks of Adventure Travel Books," Advertising Age, March 8, 1999, p. 22.
- Ringle, Ken, "Around the World in 25 Years," Washington Post, February 4, 1990.
- Sawyer, Kathy, "Change at the Geographic," Washington Post, July 17, 1977.
- Trueheart, Charles, "Garrett, Grosvenor and the Great Divide," Washington Post, May 7, 1990.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 30. St. James Press, 2000.