Every once in a while, a small thing happens. and persists, and grows into something more important than anybody expected. On January 13, 1888, there was a meeting of 33 men at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. The Cosmos Club was one of those 18th and 19th Century private “gentlemen’s clubs” that proliferated, at first in London, as aristocratic gathering places for wealthy men with something — real or imagined — in common. Membership in the clubs was, for the most part, strictly controlled, and depended on shared background in education or military service, or on shared interests in anything from sports to literature to politics to travel. There was a whole “club culture” in London for years, and becoming a member was an important part of feeling that one had been elevated to the status of “gentleman” — although it was always difficult to say quite what that meant.
There were eventually hundreds of such clubs in London, mostly because the existing clubs were very stingy about admitting new members. When more and more men were faced with longer and longer waiting lists (up to sixteen years) to join clubs, they simply formed their own new clubs. By the 1880s, there were over 400 of them in London.
The US was never quite as dedicated to gentlemen’s clubs as was England, but they did exist. John Wesley Powell, the man who led the first expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, founded such a club in 1878: the Cosmos Club. The “shared interests” in this case were sciences, mostly geography (Powell was the first director of the US Geological Survey) and astronomy. You’d think that with a private, members-only (and no women allowed) place to gather and, I guess, discuss geography (ok, frankly most gentlemen’s clubs also featured bars and game rooms for billiards and the like), that would have been that. But it wasn’t. So the January 13 meeting in 1898 took place. It was held at the Cosmos Club, but it wasn’t really a Cosmos Club meeting (and come to think of it, I have no idea whether gentlemen’s clubs even hold meetings).
They wanted to form a new club.
The meeting on January 13 included Powell, the Cosmos founder, and 32 other men (women were still not allowed) who were wealthy industrialists, explorers (of Alaska, Death Valley, among others), prominent scientists, mapmakers, and the like. They wanted to form a new club…er, that is, a society, with goals beyond just providing a comfortable home-away-from-home and a male-only environment. This new organization was intended for “the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” It had outreach. It was educational. It was — or became, a couple weeks later when it was incorporated — the National Geographic Society.
Original National Geographic Society emblem
The new society wasn’t a “gentlemen’s club” at all, but it was quite a few other things. They sponsored education, made grants for expeditions, started the famous magazine with the yellow border, and eventually branched out into other media like documentary films. That yellow border, by the way, is the society’s logo. Like that original January 13 meeting, it’s a simple thing (maybe deceptively simple) that now means a lot.
Other January thirteenths hold different beginnings of various sorts. At least one, instead of a simple beginning leading to a big result, is a complex and impressive beginning leading to not much. This one is January 13, 1942, the day Henry Ford received a patent on his “soybean car.” It was a small car with plastic body panels made of some sort of stuff that used soybeans as the primary — or at least an important — ingredient. One oddity of the project is that even though the cheaper, lighter plastic body would seem to be the main idea, evidently nobody thought to make a note of the recipe they used to make the plastic.
Henry Ford’s “Soybean Car”
Ford seemed to believe in the project; he bought 12,000 acres of farmland to grow the car’s ingredients (soybeans for the body and hemp for the fuel), and personally gave demos, hitting the plastic body panels with a large hammer to show that they didn’t dent like metal. Besides that, the plastic construction gave the car a 30% weight reduction, which would also lower its fuel consumption. Advances like that in 1942 must have been…completely ignored. Virtually none of the innovations of the “soybean car” made it into production autos for decades.
“Not much effect” seems to be the story — maybe — of January 13, 1993 as well. That was the day the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed. By 2021, the official story is that over 98% of the world’s chemical weapons supplies had been destroyed under the treaty. So maybe it did have a big effect — although it sure seems in recent years that chemical weapons have been mentioned in more conflicts than the numbers suggest. Still, maybe we should give that January 13 the benefit of the doubt.
But then again, sometimes “not much effect” is exactly the right outcome. After all, it was January 13, 2018 that residents of Hawaii were put just a little bit on edge by an emergency alert telling them that a missile was headed straight for them. Based on the current events of the time and the analyses of various pundits, the implication was that the missile was coming from North Korea. The warnings arrived on mobile phones, on the radio, and on TV, and included the helpful detail that “this is not a drill.” Except that there was a drill, at the Emergency Management Headquarters, and somebody said (possibly by mistake) “this is not a drill.” And that triggered the message. But luckily it didn’t retroactively trigger a missile; it was another January 13 “no outcome” event.
He stomped back to England in 1850.
But at least we can end on a high note for January 13. You may have had the chance to visit Vancouver, British Columbia in the Pacific northwest of North America. It’s on an island, ringed by bays that are themselves enclosed by mountains, and it’s one of the beauty spots of the continent. And the city itself has a lot to recommend it too. And of course it also has today, because January 13, 1849 was the day the Colony of Vancouver Island was first established. There had been European residents in the area for a while already — Captain Cook had been the first visitor from Europe in 1778, and both Spanish and British settlements came along not too long after that. But they were just outposts in the wilderness until the place became an official colony. Although in many ways it was more of a company town than a crown colony; everybody who lived there worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Company ran everything. This became so frustrating for the first governor, Richard Blanshard, that he stomped back to England in 1850, leaving James Douglas — a Hudson’s Bay official — in charge. By all reports, that didn’t change a thing. Douglas was named governor a year later, and — perhaps to some people’s surprise — he evidently did quite a good job. It was good enough to get the colony growing, and also good enough to earn Douglas a knighthood, and he’s still known as the “Father of British Columbia.”
If James Douglas is known as the Father of British Columbia (which is still a Canadian province), then John Wesley Powell is certainly the Father of the Cosmos Club (which is still operating), and the National Geographic Society, which was born right at the Cosmos Club, can probably claim Gardiner Greene Hubbard as father. Hubbard was elected the Society’s first president, but you have to wonder what he was doing in the club at all. After all, gentlemen’s clubs were supposed to be organized according to shared interests, and Hubbard wasn’t an explorer or a scientist. Not a meteorologist. Never drew a map. Wasn’t a geologist. Nope — Hubbard was none of those. What kind of man was he, then? Well, the kind of man that could probably gain entry to any gentlemen’s club at all — he was a lawyer.
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