Alexander Von Humboldt

By Lee, Jeff | Focus, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Alexander Von Humboldt


Lee, Jeff, Focus


Jeff Lee describes the prodigious field work and publications of this early geographer

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the last true generalists in science. While considered a geographer, he contributed to most of the sciences of the natural environment found today. Born in Berlin, von Humboldt's father was Chamberlain to the King, a royal advisor, who died when Alexander was nine years old. As a child, he received a private education and was a slow learner and sickly much of the time. On his own, he loved collecting local plants and animals and reading books on foreign travel and adventure. He also loved to draw, mostly landscapes. Typical of the time, science was not part of his schooling; Humboldt was generally self taught in that area. At sixteen, he attended lectures on physics and philosophy and decided to pursue a career in science.

Humboldt attended several universities, but never for very long. His mother wanted him to get a job with the Prussian Civil Service and to appease her he ended up at the Hamburg School of Commerce. There he studied intensely for his courses and with equal intensity his other interests in geology, botany and languages. He developed a liberal approach to politics and a visit to Paris in 1790, while the ideals of the French Revolution were still apparent, confirmed his convictions.

In 1791 he took a position with the Prussian Academy of Industry and Mines, where he was given a thorough education in geology at the Freiberg Mining Academy. A. G. Werner, a leading geologist of the day, was one of his instructors. His job with the Bureau of Mines gave him ample opportunity to travel and do scientific investigations. Some of his studies were mining related but his wide interests led him to do research on many topics in his spare time. (Throughout his life, he typically slept only three or four hours per night.) He published an exhaustive study on electrical effects on nerves and muscles, though his conclusions were quickly shown to be incorrect by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, namesake of the unit 'volt'. His botanical work, however, brought him lasting acclaim in the scientific world. He became good friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the leading intellectual of Germany. While best known for his poetry and plays, Goethe was also a statesman and scientist. The two learned much from each other.

Humboldt in the Americas

Humboldt's mother died in 1796 and he was left a respectable fortune. He resigned his mining job and arranged to go exploring. He was to join a British expedition to the Nile, but Napoleon invaded Egypt. Then he was set to join a French voyage around the world, but war with Austria broke out and the government withdrew the funds. While preparing for this voyage, he met Arime Bonpland, a French botanist. The two became good friends and decided to set our on their own expedition at Humboldt's expense. They convinced the King and Queen of Spain to allow them to visit the Spanish American Colonies, where few foreigners were welcome. The two sailed to the New World with a collection of the best scientific instruments Humboldt could buy. As he said in a letter, "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."

Humboldt and Bonpland spent five years in the New World. In 1799 they arrived in Venezuela. They explored the Orinoco and Rio Negro Rivers in that colony, mapping and collecting natural history specimens in the rainforest. They then traveled in the Andes Mountains in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. They spent several months in the city of Quito, exploring the local volcanoes. Humboldt and Bonpland climbed Chimborazo, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world at 6300 meters. Humboldt and Bonpland only reached 5900 meters, but that was far higher than any known human had ever been. …

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