I don’t know where to begin telling you about Alexander von Humboldt. This romantic German had all the right qualities to become a scientific adventurer, and he was born into the ideal circumstances for doing exactly that. He ended up the most famous man in Europe, after Napoleon, and was given a state funeral when he passed away in 1859 at the age of 90.
Humboldt didn’t visit every single place where a memorial to him stands today, but he definitely got around. He explored the Orinoco River in South America and found its connection with the Amazon; in the process, he was severely shocked by an electric eel, nearly poisoned himself with curare, and walked away from an unexpectedly close encounter with a jaguar, noting “There are moments in life when it is useless to call on reason.”
He was the first European to recognize the achievements of indigenous people in the Americas, for example, favorably comparing Inca roads with those built by the Romans.
Alexander invented the word “Jurassic” and also coined the geologic term “formations.” He realized that some formations were the same in both Old and New Worlds, i.e., were connected.
He was the first to document that volcanoes occur in linear rows. Humboldt attributed this to deep fissures, but we now know that plate tectonics has raised the great line of Andes volcanoes. He also believed, as few did at the time, that volcanism is a major part of mountain building.
Humboldt and Aime Bonplant, a botanist, set a world climbing record on Mount Chimborazo. One of his books was banned in Cuba because he criticized slavery. He discovered the great Pacific ocean current that now bears his name.
While doing all this, Alexander von Humboldt laid the basis for modern physical geography, meteorology, environmental science, and international cooperation among scientists.
He visited the White House in 1804 and had long chats with President Thomas Jefferson about science and the state of the Spanish empire in Mexico and California.
Humboldt’s adventures set in motion the great European mapping explorations of the New World. At age 60, he explored Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia…
Well, you get the idea. Today they even call his time the era of Humboldtian science.
Why has no one made a movie of this man’s life?
“A mind with gifts so peculiarly suited for the purpose”
Even during his well-to-do childhood in Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt had a lively curiosity in all the earth sciences. Perhaps it was while he was building collections of insects, plants, and rocks as a boy that he first began to see how animal and plant life are related and how both rely heavily on their environment.
Humboldt’s family also was well connected socially. His father, who died when he was nine years old, was a royal adviser.
He attended several schools. At Gottingen University in 1789, he became friends with Georg Forster, a naturalist who had sailed around the world with Captain James Cook in 1772. In 1790, Forster and Humboldt went to England and then visited France in 1791, whose revolutionary liberal values Alexander adopted as his own. Around this time he also learned of and agreed with Immanuel Kant’s concepts of natural interconnectedness.
Forster joined the French Revolution, but Alexander listened to his mother, who wanted him to get a civil service job.
In 1792, after training with one of the leading geologists of the day, Alexander was appointed Prussia’s assistant inspector of mines. They skipped the probationary period because of his student work – it also helped that he was an aristocrat and had an independent income.
The government post wasn’t demanding, and Humboldt soon proved he was a capable diplomat. He also had time to carry out thousands of experiments in areas as diverse as galvanism and botany. As well, Humboldt used his position set up a school for miners in the Fichtel gold field and established safety and health requirements there.
In 1796, Humboldt’s mother died and left him a fortune. He now had the means, as well as the training and personal contacts, to realize his dream:
I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.
Next week, we’ll see how he went about doing that and much more. In the last part of this three-part series, we’ll see how his Kosmos is related to and compares with the modern television series of that name.
In the meantime, let’s talk a short walk around Berlin in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt.
- Baron Friedrich W.K.H. Alexander von Humboldt. James S. Aber
- Humboldt’s Personal narrative and its influence on Darwin. Darwin Online (this includes a link to a searchable version of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative
- Alexander von Humboldt. Encyclopedia of Earth Topics
- Profile of Baron Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt State University
- Alexander von Humboldt. Wikipedia