History of National Geographic Magazine Part 1

About the major reference journal the National Geographic Magazine, history of the organization, Alexander Graham Bell as president and the modern operation.


History: National Geographic Magazine is the journal of the National Georgraphic Society, largest scientific and educational institution in the world. The nonprofit society was founded in 1888 in Washington, D.C., by 33 civic leaders to promote "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge." Its first president was Gardiner Greene Hubbard, father-in-law and financial backer of Alexander Graham Bell and first president of the Bell Telephone Company.

Edited by part-time volunteers, the magazine first appeared in October, 1888, and was irregularly published until it became a monthly in 1896. Early issues were short, technical, and unattractive, with plain red-brown covers. Newsstand sales were minimal. Typical early subjects were geology, meteorology, oceanography, and history of exploration. The magazine reported expeditions sponsored by the society. In 1890-1891 the first of the society's expeditions explored the St. Elias Mountains along the Canada-Alaska border and discovered Mt. Logan, Canada's highest peak. Later society grants (more than 1,400 to date) helped Peary reach the North Pole, Byrd fly over the South Pole, Cousteau explore the sea, the Leakeys trace our past in Africa, and Jane Goodall observe wild chimpanzees.

Alexander Graham Bell became president of the society in 1898. With membership stalled at around 1,000 and the treasury empty, survival required making the magazine pay. Bell made two important decisions. First, he focused on society membership rather than on newsstand and subscription sales, believing armchair travelers would want to join a distinguished fellowship and, like the rich, support exploration through their dues. Second, he hired 23-year-old schoolteacher Gilbert H. Grosvenor as full-time editor, initially paying Grosvenor's yearly $1,200 salary out of his own pocket.

Within a year society membership reached 2,000, as Grosvenor began publishing articles of general interest, written in an appealing style. In 1905, with membership at 10,000, Grosvenor, in an unprecedented move, filled 11 pages of one issue with photographs. By 1908 pictures occupied 50% of the space. In 1910 the Geographic's first color photographs (produced by using color screen plates) appeared, as a 24-page series on Korea and China, the largest collection of color photographs ever published in a single issue of any magazine to that time. In 1916 the Geographic pioneered in natural color, establishing a tradition of notable "firsts" in photography which include the first natural-color photos of Arctic life, the undersea world, and the stratosphere.

Serving as editor until 1954, Grosvenor determined the popular character of the magazine and increased its circulation to over 2 million. In 1900 he married Alexander Graham Bell's daughter, and the Bell-Grosvenor dynasty has guided the society and the magazine almost continuously since. Gilbert Grosvenor's son, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was society president and editor from 1957 to 1967 and editor in chief until 1977, and his grandson, Gilbert Melville Grosvenor, is currently vice-president and editor.

Modern Operation: At the society's 10-story headquarters in Washington, D.C., a control center with maps and magnetically posted data keeps track of the hundreds of articles in preparation and the whereabouts of writers and photographers. Society photographers take more than a million pictures a year, enabling the magazine to build up a superlative library of photographs. Most articles are eyewitness accounts by staff members or recognized writers and scientists. Twenty-one staff researchers check and recheck each fact.

In 1959 the entire printing operation was moved to Chicago, where R. R. Donnelley and Sons now use 170-ton ultramodern high-speed presses, custom-built for National Geographic, to accomodate increasing circulation. The society's expanding activities include the production of books, atlases, globes, records, filmstrips, and television programs.

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