910: Explorers House by Robert M. Poole

by Gerard

910.6073: Poole, Robert M. Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made. New York: Penguin, 2004. 310 pp. ISBN 1-59420-032-7.

Dewey Construction:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 910: Geography and travel
  • +.6: Organizations and management
  • +073: United States

Alexander Graham Bell is quite the greedy-guts of history. Not only did he hold the most important patent in history (the telephone), invent the metal detector, and attempt to perfect hydrofoil design, he was also one of the founding members of the most important ecological and scientific organizations of our day: The National Geographic Society.

On January 13, 1888, 33 explorers and scientists were invited to the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. There they made a commitment to for a society “for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge” to rival England’s Royal Society—the National Geographic Society. Gardiner Green Hubbard become its first president two weeks later. By then, Gardiner’s daughter Mabel had been married to the inventor Alexander Graham Bell (called “Alec” by his friends) for almost eleven years.

For years, the Society met regularly to present esoteric papers on exploration, natural observations, and geological findings. These presentations were irregularly printed together in a haphazard style and made available to the members of the Society. Bell, having tried to bolster the journal Science earlier in his life, devoted his term as president to making this shoddy publication something useful and popular. He asked a friend, Edwin Grosvenor, if either of his twin sons (Gilbert or Edwin) would be willing to edit the journal. Gilbert was more than happy for a change of pace.

Under Gilbert Grosvenor’s tenure, both the magazine and Society’s membership flourished. He trimmed out the overly jargony scientific articles in favor of tales of world exploration and geopolitical pieces. When particular editions came up short, he added page after page of pictures—a bold idea for its time, but now, one of the cornerstone features of the magazine. From then on, members of the Grosvenor family would help to shape the Society and the magazine for the remainder of the 20th century.

While I’ve heard the courtship story of Alec and Mabel in about a half-dozen other books already, I found the early history of the society and its foundation much more interesting than the recent details. Modern events still need to play out before we can call them history. Bell and the Grosvenor family’s stewardship of the organization show a genuine concern with helping to popularize science, exploration, and global understanding. And that can’t be a bad thing. All in all, a satisfying book.