Noxious Bogs & Amorous Elephants

Smithsonian’s birth, 35 years ago, only hinted at the splendors to follow

Looking back at this magazine's beginnings 35 years ago, I'm struck by just how much of the founding editor's aspirations still apply. Edward K. Thompson, who had retired as editor of the weekly Life, was recruited by the then Secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley, to produce a magazine "about things in which the Smithsonian is interested, might be interested or ought to be interested."

"The magazine I envisioned," Thompson recalled in his lively 1995 memoir, A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian, "would stir curiosity in already receptive minds. It would deal with history as it is relevant to the present. It would present art, since true art is never dated, in the richest possible reproduction. It would peer into the future via coverage of social progress and of science and technology. Technical matters would be digested and made intelligible by skilled writers who would stimulate readers to reach upward while not turning them off with jargon. We would find the best writers and the best photographers—not unlike the best of the old Life."

Edwards Park, a member of the original staff, recalled the magazine's unprepossessing beginnings for the tenth anniversary issue: "We were moved all over the place. There was one interior storage room where four of us ended up—staring at walls without windows, gasping for oxygen. Inevitably it was dubbed the Black Hole, and one claustrophobe moved out of it himself and placed his desk directly outside the Editor's office to serve as a haunting prod to the administrative conscience. For a while I was assigned to a tower, a lovely aerie with three windowed walls. But the heating-cooling system hemorrhaged fatally all over the rug and turned the office into a noxious bog."

Like most newborns, the magazine took a tumble or two at first. The circulation department solicited NBC News with the salutation, "Dear Mr. News"—a gaffe that anchorman John Chancellor was happy to share with his millions of viewers. And the Washington Post published a story saying, erroneously, that the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents " recommend the suspension of ambitious plans for a national magazine."

Somehow, in April 1970, the first issue reached 160,000 readers with a cover story about amorous elephants in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a rumination on the give-and-take between man and his environment, a selection of treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (celebrating its 100th anniversary), starfish devouring Pacific coral reefs, a new black studies program at the University of Maryland and controversial conclusions about human overpopulation drawn from an experiment with mice and rats. Not too shabby a lineup.

The magazine turned a profit in only its third year and has been contributing to Institution coffers ever since. Within four years, circulation had nearly quadrupled, to 635,000, and it reached the one million milestone in 1975—one of the most successful launches of its time.

Thompson, who retired in 1980 after ten years at the helm, was succeeded by Don Moser, also a Life veteran. Moser broadened the magazine's editorial range and took the circulation to two million (more than seven million monthly readers) where it remains to this day. Moser also doubled Thompson's tenure, editing the magazine for 20 years, before retiring in 2001. (Don's profile of John Dobson can be found on page 58.)

Which makes me only the third editor of Smithsonian. Like my predecessors, I believe our educated, well-traveled, demanding readers want thoughtful—even challenging—journalism about history, nature, science and the arts. And stunning photography. And a dollop of wit now and then.

I've introduced a few new departments and tried to make the magazine a bit more topical. But the great franchise entrusted to me in July 2001 remains at heart the magazine that Ed Thompson envisioned and that Don Moser turned into one of the world's most respected periodicals. We have a proud heritage, a dedicated staff, talented contributors and among the most loyal readers anywhere. It's a privilege to edit Smithsonian. Here's to the next 35 years!

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