Today, an old society stretches our minds. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The roots of the Royal
Geographical Society, the RGS, are two centuries
old. By the time it gained its Royal charter in
1859 it was already a social and scientific force.
It still is today. It's a lot like our National
Geographic Society. Both fund exploration. Our
National Geographic magazine gives us
huge visibility. But the Royal Society houses more
information, and it's done more to change our
The RGS is woven through David Livingstone's long African
odyssey. Livingstone muddled things by chasing
three objectives. He was a missionary, an explorer,
and a passionate enemy of the Arab slave trade.
When he died of disease after 32 years in Africa,
the slave trade outlived him. The Missionary
Society disowned him. He didn't locate the origin
of the Nile. But he did set an example of
dedication that carried on his causes long after he
died. He awakened an electric interest in
His people took his body back to England, but first
they took out his heart and buried it under the
Mpundu tree in Africa. Meanwhile the Society had
sent Speke and Burton to look for the origin of the
Nile. They loathed each other, and they saw quite
different things when they looked at Africa. Burton
was tuned to Africa's culture and people. But in
the end, Speke found where the Nile began.
In this century, the Society looked to Antarctica.
They helped support Scott's attempt to reach the
Pole. Scott made it, only to find that Amundsen had
got there first. Then Scott's party died of
starvation and exposure on the way back. The last
ones died only 11 miles from base camp. A Society
official drew fire when he said Amundsen had been
luckier than Scott. In fact, Amundsen had been far
better at surviving in 70-below weather
So the RGS went on to other things. It funded
assaults on Everest. One was Hillary and Tenzing's
successful climb in 1953. Today's RGS is high-tech.
It uses computers, remote sensing, and all the
paraphernalia of modern geography. It also houses
relics of the romance that it's woven. Here's an
Arab slave chain, Stanley's boots, and Scott's
telescope. There is a piece of that Mpundu tree.
The heart of the society has always been action.
Action has fueled the romance. The men and women on
today's RGS board have been to Borneo, Sarawak,
Timbuktu, and Mount Rakoposhi. They've been to the
remote corners of the world that are the remote
corners of our minds. The Royal Geographic Society
is a curious place. It is a meeting ground for
science, and our dreams.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds