In the era before television and movies, when travel was still a luxury reserved for the well-to-do, the National Geographic Society delivered a world of adventure to its Washington D.C. members by inviting prominent explorers and scientists to speak about their work. In February 1888–just one month after the Society's founding and before the first published National Geographic magazine–explorer John Wesley Powell inaugurated the speakers series by delivering a talk about the physical geography of the United States.
Very quickly the Society began attracting explorers eager to tell their stories, including Fridtjof Nansen, an Artic explorer; Gifford Pinchot, founder of the U.S. Forest Service; and mountaineer Annie S. Peck, who told of climbing peaks in the Alps and volcanoes in Mexico. Thousands gathered to hear Roald Amundsen, soon to be the first man to reach the South Pole, discuss his recent navigation of the Northwest Passage. Women constituted a large number of the lecture attendees. They found the talks enlightening as well as entertaining.
Gilbert Grosvenor was the Society's first full-time employee, and the job he had just undertaken would consume his energy for a lifetime. Grosvenor constantly monitored public opinion and looked for ways to boost interest in the magazine. He used the Society's lecture series as a barometer to gauge interest in subjects and illustrations. Arcane addresses on topography or land use drew an average of 20 attendees. But on the night that a scientist who had gone to Martinique lectured on the eruption of Mount Pelée, the 1,200-seat theater was packed. Unfortunately, the speaker brought no illustration. Grosvenor overheard two young women complain: "Why doesn't he show photographs? That's what we want."
Grosvenor needed no further convincing.
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