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Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, painting by Joseph Stieler, 1843
Born September 14, 1769
Berlin
Died May 6, 1859 (aged 89)
Berlin
Nationality Prussian
Fields naturalist
Known for biogeography, Kosmos (1845)

About this sound Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859) was a German naturalist and explorer, and the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography.

Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt traveled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time in a manner generally considered to be a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. He was one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular). Later, his five-volume work, Kosmos (1845), attempted to unify the various branches of scientific knowledge. Humboldt supported and worked with other scientists, including Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, Justus von Liebig, Louis Agassiz, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and most notably, Aimé Bonpland, with whom he conducted much of his scientific exploration.

Contents

Humboldt's life and travels

Early life and education

Humboldt was born in Berlin in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. His father, Alexander George von Humboldt, was a major in the Prussian Army and belonged to a prominent Pomeranian family and was rewarded for his services during the Seven Years' War with the post of Royal Chamberlain. He married Maria Elizabeth von Colomb in 1766, the widow of Baron von Holwede, and they had two sons. The money of Baron von Holwede, left to his former wife, was instrumental in the funding of Alexander's explorations, contributing more than 70% of Alexander's monetary income.[citation needed]

Due to his penchant for collecting and labeling plants, shells, and insects he received the playful title of "the little apothecary". His father died in 1779, after which his mother took care of his education. Destined for a political career, he studied finance during six months at the University of Frankfurt (Oder); and a year later, on April 25, 1789, he matriculated at Göttingen, then eminent for the lectures of C. G. Heyne and J. F. Blumenbach. His vast and varied interests were by this time fully developed, and during a vacation in 1789, he made a scientific excursion up the Rhine, and produced the treatise Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Brunswick, 1790).

Humboldt's passion for travel was confirmed by friendships formed at Göttingen with Georg Forster, Heyne's son-in-law, the distinguished companion of Captain James Cook on his second voyage. Henceforth his studies and combination of personal talents became to the purpose of preparing himself for a distinctive calling as a scientific explorer. With this view he studied commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, geology at Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg under A. G. Werner, anatomy at Jena under J. C. Loder, and astronomy and the use of scientific instruments under F. X. von Zach and J. G. Köhler. His researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg led to the publication, in 1793, of his Florae Fribergensis Specimen; and the results of a prolonged course of experiments on the phenomena of muscular irritability, then recently discovered by Luigi Galvani, were contained in his Versuche über die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser (Berlin, 1797), enriched in the French translation with notes by Blumenbach.

A portrait of Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Travels and work in Europe

In 1794 Humboldt was admitted to the intimacy of the famous Weimar coterie, and contributed (June 7, 1795) to Schiller's new periodical, Die Horen, a philosophical allegory entitled Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius. In the summer of 1790 he paid a short visit to England in company with Forster. In 1792 and 1797 he was in Vienna; in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. He had obtained in the meantime official employment: appointed assessor of mines at Berlin, February 29, 1792. Although this service to the state was regarded by him as only an apprenticeship to the service of science, he fulfilled its duties with such conspicuous ability that not only did he rise rapidly to the highest post in his department, but he was also entrusted with several important diplomatic missions. The death of his mother, on November 19, 1796, set him free to follow the bent of his genius, and severing his official connections, he waited for an opportunity to fulfil his long-cherished dream of travel.

Latin American expedition

Alexander von Humboldt's Latin American expedition

On the postponement of Captain Baudin's proposed voyage of circumnavigation, which he had been officially invited to accompany, Humboldt left Paris for Marseille with Aimé Bonpland, the designated botanist of the frustrated expedition, hoping to join Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt. Means of transport, however, were not forthcoming, and the two travellers eventually found their way to Madrid, where the unexpected patronage of the minister Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo convinced them to make Spanish America the scene of their explorations.

Armed with powerful recommendations, they sailed in the Pizarro from A Coruña, on June 5, 1799, stopped six days on the island of Tenerife to climb Mount Teide, and landed at Cumaná, Venezuela, on July 16. Humboldt visited the mission at Caripe where he found the oil-bird, which he was to make known to science as Steatornis caripensis. Returning to Cumaná, Humboldt observed, on the night of November 11–12, a remarkable meteor shower (the Leonids). He proceeded with Bonpland to Caracas; and in February 1800 they left the coast with the purpose of exploring the course of the Orinoco River. This trip, which lasted four months, and covered 1,725 miles (2,776 km) of wild and largely uninhabited country, had the important result of establishing the existence of the Casiquiare canal (a communication between the water-systems of the rivers Orinoco and Amazon), and of determining the exact position of the bifurcation, as well as documenting the life of several native tribes such as the Maipures and their extinct rivals the Atures. Around March 19, 1800, von Humboldt and Bonpland discovered and captured some electric eels. They both received potentially dangerous electric shocks during their investigations. Two months later they explored the territory of the Maypures and that of the then recently extinct Aturès indians.

On November 24, the two friends set sail for Cuba, and after a stay of some months they regained the mainland at Cartagena, Colombia. Ascending the swollen stream of the Magdalena, and crossing the frozen ridges of the Cordillera Real, they reached Quito on January 6, 1802, after a tedious and difficult journey. Their stay there was marked by the ascent of Pichincha and an attempt on Chimborazo. Humboldt and his party reached an altitude of 19,286 feet (5,878 m), a world record at the time. The journey concluded with an expedition to the sources of the Amazon en route for Lima, Peru. At Callao, Humboldt observed the transit of Mercury on November 9, and studied the fertilizing properties of guano, the subsequent introduction of which into Europe was due mainly to his writings. A tempestuous sea-voyage brought them to Mexico, where they resided for a year, traveling to different cities.

Next, von Humboldt made a short visit to the United States, staying in the White House as a guest of President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, a scientist himself, was delighted to have von Humboldt as a guest and the two held numerous intense discussions on scientific matters. After six weeks, von Humboldt set sail for Europe from the mouth of the Delaware, and landed at Bordeaux on August 3, 1804.

Achievements of the Latin American expedition

House where Alexander von Humboldt lived in Mexico City in 1803, located at 80 Rep. de Uruguay in the historic center of the town, just south of the Zocalo.
Isothermal chart of the world created by William Channing Woodbridge using Humboldt's work.

This memorable expedition may be regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography and meteorology. By his delineation (in 1817) of "isothermal lines", he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries. He first investigated the rate of decrease in mean temperature with the increase in elevation above sea level, and afforded, by his inquiries regarding the origin of tropical storms, the earliest clue to the detection of the more complicated law governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes; while his essay on the geography of plants was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. His discovery of the decrease in intensity of Earth's magnetic field from the poles to the equator was communicated to the Paris Institute in a memoir read by him on December 7, 1804, and its importance was attested by the speedy emergence of rival claims. His services to geology were based mainly on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the New World. He showed that they fell naturally into linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures; and by his demonstration of the igneous origin of rocks previously held to be of aqueous formation, he contributed largely to the elimination of erroneous views, such as Neptunism.

An 1815 self-portrait of Humboldt (age 45).
Statue of Alexander von Humboldt located in the Alameda Central (central park) of Mexico City. The inscription reads "From the Mexican Nation to Alejandro de Humboldt - Merit from the country 1799-1999"

The reduction into form and publication of the encyclopædic mass of scientific, political and archaeological material – collected by him during his absence from Europe – was now Humboldt's most urgent desire. After a short trip to Italy with Gay-Lussac for the purpose of investigating the law of magnetic declination, and a sojourn of two and a half years in his native city, he finally, in the spring of 1808, settled in Paris with the purpose of securing the scientific cooperation required for bringing his great work through the press. This colossal task, which he at first hoped would occupy but two years, eventually cost him twenty-one, and even then it remained incomplete. In these early years in Paris, he shared accommodation and a laboratory with his former rival, and now friend, Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, both working together on the analysis of gases and the composition of the atmosphere.

Humboldt is considered to be the "second discoverer of Cuba" due to all the scientific and social research he conducted on this Spanish colony. During an initial three-month stay at Havana, his first tasks were to properly survey that city and the nearby towns of Guanabacoa, Regla and Bejucal. He befriended Cuban landowner and thinker Francisco Arrango y Parreño; together they visited the Guines area in south Havana, the valleys of Matanzas Province, and the Valley of the Sugar Mills in Trinidad. Those three areas were, at the time, the first frontier of sugar production in the island. During those trips, Humboldt collected statistical information on Cuba's population, production, technology and trade, and with Arrango, made suggestions for enhancing them. He predicted that the agricultural and commercial potential of Cuba was huge and could be vastly improved with proper leadership in the future. After traveling to America, Humboldt returned to Cuba for a second, shorter stay in April 1804. During this time he socialized with his scientific and landowner friends, conducted mineralogical surveys and finished his vast collection of the island's flora and fauna.

Finally, Humboldt conducted a rudimentary census of the indigenous and European inhabitants in New Spain, and on May 5, 1804, he estimated the population to be six million individuals.[1][2]

Humboldtian Science

Alexander Von Humboldt thought a different approach to science was needed; he wanted an approach that could account for the harmony of nature among the diversity of the physical world. For Humboldt, “the unity of nature” meant that interrelation of all physical sciences- such as the conjoining between biology, meteorology, and geology that determined where specific plants grew-which the scientist unraveled by discovering myriad, painstakingly collecting data[3] , which turned into an enduring foundation for others to follow. Humboldt viewed nature as a whole. He tried to explain natural phenomena without the appeal to religious dogma. Humboldt used extensive observation to get the truth from the natural world. He had a vast array of the most sophisticated armamentarium of scientific instruments ever before assembled. Each had its own velvet lined box and was the most accurate and portable of its time. Essentially everything would be measured with the finest and most modern instruments and sophisticated techniques available, for all the collected data was the basis of all scientific understanding. This methodology would become known as “Humboldtian science.” Humboldt wrote “Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.”[4]

A national rebuff

Matthew Fontaine Maury subsequently revealed that Brazil had ordered the arrest of Alexander von Humboldt if Humboldt ever came there—that great European scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, who had traveled elsewhere in South America. This alone, Maury said, showed the stupidity of the closed door policy.[5]

Criticism

His critics say his writings are about fantastical descriptions of America, while leaving out its inhabitants. Coming from the Romantic school of thought, they claim Humboldt believed '...nature is perfect till man deforms it with care.'[6] In this line of thinking, they think he largely neglected the human societies amidst this nature. The writing style that describes the 'new world' without people is a trend among explorers both of the past and present. Views of indigenous peoples as 'savage' or 'unimportant' leaves them out of the historical picture.[6] In reality Humboldt dedicated large parts of his work to describing the conditions of slaves, Indians and society in general. He often showed his disgust for the slavery and inhumane conditions in which Indians and others were treated and often criticized the colonial policies.

Humboldt acclaimed

Humboldt was now one of the most famous men in Europe.[7] The acclaimed American painter Rembrandt Peale painted him during his stay, between 1808 and 1810, as one of the most prominent figures in Europe at the time. A chorus of applause greeted him from every side. Academies, both native and foreign, were eager to enroll him among their members. He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1810. King Frederick William III of Prussia conferred upon him the honour, without exacting the duties, attached to the post of royal chamberlain, together with a pension of 2,500 thalers, afterwards doubled. He refused the appointment of Prussian minister of public instruction in 1810. In 1814 he accompanied the allied sovereigns to London. Three years later he was summoned by the king of Prussia to attend him at the congress of Aachen. Again in the autumn of 1822 he accompanied the same monarch to the congress of Verona, proceeded thence with the royal party to Rome and Naples, and returned to Paris in the spring of 1823.

Five-mark banknote from East Germany of 1964 showing Humboldt

Humboldt had long regarded the French capital as his true home. There he found, not only scientific sympathy, but the social stimulus which his vigorous and healthy mind eagerly craved. He was equally in his element as the lion of the salons and as the savant of the institute and the observatory. During that time he met in 1818, the young and brilliant Peruvian student of the Royal Mining School of Paris, Mariano Eduardo de Rivero y Ustariz. They became good friends. Subsequently von Humboldt acted as a mentor of the career of this promising Peruvian scientist. Thus, when at last he received from his sovereign a summons to join his court at Berlin, he obeyed indeed, but with deep and lasting regret. The provincialism of his native city was odious to him. He never ceased to rail against the bigotry without religion, aestheticism without culture, and philosophy without common sense, which he found dominant on the banks of the Spree. The unremitting benefits and sincere attachment of two well-meaning princes secured his gratitude, but could not appease his discontent. At first he sought relief from the "nebulous atmosphere" of his new abode by frequent visits to Paris; but as years advanced, his excursions were reduced to accompanying the monotonous "oscillations" of the court between Potsdam and Berlin. On May 12, 1827 he settled permanently in the Prussian capital, where his first efforts were directed towards the furtherance of the science of terrestrial magnetism. For many years, it had been one of his favourite schemes to secure, by means of simultaneous observations at distant points, a thorough investigation of the nature and law of "magnetic storms" (a term invented by him to designate abnormal disturbances of Earth's magnetism). The meeting at Berlin, on September 18, 1828, of a newly-formed scientific association, of which he was elected president, gave him the opportunity of setting on foot an extensive system of research in combination with his diligent personal observations. His appeal to the Russian government, in 1829, led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia. Meanwhile his letter to the Duke of Sussex, then (April 1836) president of the Royal Society, secured for the undertaking, the wide basis of the British dominions.

The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, observes, "Thus that scientific conspiracy of nations which is one of the noblest fruits of modern civilization was by his exertions first successfully organized." However, earlier examples of international scientific cooperation exist, notably the 18th-century observations of the transits of Venus.

Explorations in Russia

In 1811, and again in 1818, projects of Asiatic exploration were proposed to Humboldt, first by the Russian government, and afterwards by the Prussian government; but on each occasion, untoward circumstances interposed, and it was not until he had begun his sixtieth year that he resumed his early role of traveller in the interests of science. Between May and November 1829, he, together with his chosen associates, Gustav Rose and C. G. Ehrenberg, traversed the wide expanse of the Russian empire from the Neva to the Yenesei, accomplishing in twenty-five weeks a distance of 9,614 miles (15,472 km). The journey, however, though carried out with all the advantages afforded by the immediate patronage of the Russian government, was too rapid to be profitable. Its most important fruits were crabapples, the correction of the prevalent exaggerated estimate of the height of the Central Asian plateau, and the discovery of diamonds in the gold-washings of the Ural, a result which Humboldt's Brazilian experiences enabled him to predict, and by predicting to secure.

Humboldt as diplomat

Between 1830 and 1848 von Humboldt was frequently employed in diplomatic missions to the court of Louis Philippe, with whom he always maintained the most cordial personal relations.

His brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, died in Alexander's arms on April 8, 1836. The death saddened the later years of his life; Alexander lamented that he had lost half of himself with the death of his brother.

Upon the accession of the crown prince Frederick William IV in June 1840, Humboldt's favour at court increased. Indeed, the new king's craving for Humboldt's company became at times so importunate as to leave him only a few waking hours to work on his writing.

The "Cosmos"

Statue of Alexander von Humboldt outside Humboldt University, Unter den Linden, Berlin. Note the Spanish inscription describing him as "the second discoverer of Cuba."

The first two volumes of the Kosmos were published between the years 1845 and 1847. Humboldt had been intending to write a comprehensive work about different facets of geography and the natural sciences for decades. The writing first took shape in a set of lectures he delivered before the University of Berlin in the winter of 1827-28. In the words of one biography, these lectures would form "the cartoon for the great fresco of the [K]osmos".[8] The scope of this work may be described as the representation of the unity amidst the complexity of nature. Humboldt's work was by and large a synthesis of Kantian views of unity of natural phenomena. Drawing together the methods and instrumentation of the discrete sciences and with inspiration from German Romanticism, Humboldt sought to create a compendium of the world's environment. The book was written for an educated audience and contains much contemporaneous scientific data.

The last decade of his long life — his "improbable" years, as he was accustomed to calling them — was devoted to the continuation of this work, of which the third and fourth volumes were published in 1850-58, while a fragment of a fifth was to appear posthumously in 1862. In these volumes he sought to elaborate upon the individual branches of science broadly surveyed in the first volume. Notwithstanding their high separate value, it must be admitted that, from an artistic point of view, these additions were deformities. The characteristic idea of the work, so far as such a gigantic idea admitted of literary incorporation, was completely developed in its opening portions, and the attempt to convert it into a scientific encyclopædia was in truth to nullify its generating motive. Humboldt's remarkable industry and accuracy were never more conspicuous than in this latest trophy to his genius. Nor did he rely entirely on his own labours. He owed much of what he accomplished to his rare power of assimilating thoughts that were not as his own and availing himself of others' cooperation. The notes to Kosmos overflow with laudatory citations, the current coin in which he discharged his intellectual debts.

Kosmos was very popular, especially in Britain and USA. In 1849 a German newspaper mused about the fact that in England two of the three different translations(!) of this work were made by women, "while in Germany most of the men do not understand it."[9] The first had been made by Augustin Pritchard and published anonymous by Mr. Baillière, volume I in 1845 and volume II in 1848. But it suffered very much from the hurry it was made in. Humboldt wrote in a letter on this translation. "It will damage my reputation. All the charm of my description is destroyed by an English sounding like Sanskrit." The other two translations were made by Mrs. Sabine under the superintendence of her Husband Col. Edward Sabine (4 volumes 1846 – 1858), and by Miss E.C. Otté (5 volumes 1849 – 1858, the only complete translation of the 4 German volumes). These three translations were also published in USA. The numbering of the volumes differ between the German and the English editions. Volume 3 of the German edition corresponds to the volumes 3 and 4 of the English translation, as the German volume appeared in 2 parts in 1850 and 1851. Volume 5 of the German edition was not translated until 1981, again by a woman.[10] A great advantage of the English translation of Miss Otté was its detailed table of contents, and index for every volume; of the German edition only volumes 4 and 5 had an extremely short table of contents. German readers had to wait until the appearance of volume 5 in 1862 for an index.

Not so well known in Germany is the atlas belonging to the German edition of the Cosmos "Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas", better known as the pirated version by Traugott Bromme under the title "Atlas zu Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos" (Stuttgart 1861). In Britain Heinrich Berghaus planned to publish together with Alexander Keith Johnston a "Physical Atlas". But later Johnston published it alone under the title "The Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena". In Britain its connection to the Cosmos seems not have been recognized.[11]

Illness and death

Photo of Humboldt in his later years

On February 24, 1857 Humboldt suffered a minor stroke, which passed without perceptible symptoms. It was not until the winter of 1858-1859 that his strength began to decline, and that spring, on May 6, he died quietly in Berlin at the age of 89. The honours which had been showered on him during life continued after his death. His remains, prior to being interred in the family resting-place at Tegel, were conveyed in state through the streets of Berlin, and received by the prince-regent at the door of the cathedral. The first centenary of his birth was celebrated on September 14, 1869, with great enthusiasm in both the New and Old Worlds. Numerous monuments erected in his honour, and newly explored regions named after Humboldt, bear witness to his wide fame and popularity.

Personal life

Much of Humboldt's private life remains a mystery because he destroyed his private letters.

In 1908 the sexual researcher Paul Näcke, who worked with outspoken gay activist Magnus Hirschfeld, gathered reminiscences of him from people who recalled his participation in the homosexual subculture of Berlin.[12] A travelling companion, the pious Francisco José de Caldas, accused him of frequenting houses where 'impure love reigned', of making friends with 'obscene dissolute youths', and giving vent to 'shameful passions of his heart'.[13] To be sure, none of this necessarily proves homosexuality. On the question of homosexuality, author Robert F. Aldrich concludes, "As for so many men of his age, a definite answer is impossible."[14]

Steel engraving of a portrait of Humboldt by Julius Schrader

Throughout his life Humboldt formed strong emotional attachments to men. To the soldier Reinhard von Haeften he wrote: "I know that I live only through you, my good precious Reinhard, and that I can only be happy in your presence."[15] He never married, yet there were two notable exceptions where he seemed to have been drawn to the opposite sex. The first was an adolescent infatuation with Henriette Herz, the beautiful wife of Marcus Herz, his mentor, and the second was a short lived but intimate relationship with a woman named Pauline Wiesel in 1808 Paris.[16] He was strongly attached to his brother's family; and in his later years the somewhat arbitrary sway of an old and faithful servant held him in more than matrimonial bondage. By a singular example of generosity (or some people would say weakness), he executed, four years before his death, a deed of gift transferring to this man Seifert the absolute possession of his entire property. No undue advantage appears to have been taken of this extraordinary concession.

His attachments, once formed, were sincere and lasting. He made innumerable friends; and it does not stand on record that he ever lost one. His benevolence was throughout his life active and disinterested. He showed zeal for the improvement of the condition of the miners in Galicia and Franconia, detestation of slavery, and patronage of rising men of science.

The faults of his old age were brought into prominence by the publication of his letters to Varnhagen von Ense. The chief of these faults was his habit of smooth speaking, almost amounting to flattery, in contrast with the caustic sarcasm of his confidential utterances. His vanity, at all times conspicuous, was tempered by his sense of humour, and was so frankly avowed as to invite sympathy rather than provoke ridicule.

Honours and namesakes

Species named after Humboldt

See also the list of things named for Alexander von Humboldt.

As a consequence of his explorations, von Humboldt described many geographical features and species of life that were hitherto unknown to Europeans. Species named after him include:

Geographical features named after Humboldt

Features named after him include the following:

Places named after Humboldt

The following places are named for Humboldt:

The Mare Humboldtianum lunar mare is named after him, as is the asteroid 54 Alexandra.

Universities and colleges

The Humboldt Tropical Medicine Institute at Cayetano Heredia University, Lima, Peru, was named after Alexander von Humboldt, as well as Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, Alexander Von Humboldt school in Mexico City, Several German schools (including Humboldt University of Berlin) are named after Alexander's brother Wilhelm. In Montréal the German International School was named after Alexander von Humboldt, as well as the Humboldt Schule in San Jose Costa Rica. Universidad Alejandro de Humboldt, in Caracas, Venezuela, is another university named after him.

Alexander Von Humboldt also lends his name to a prominent lecture series in Human geography in the Netherlands (hosted by the Radboud University Nijmegen). It is the Dutch equivalent of the widely known annual Hettner lectures at the University of Heidelberg.

Then President of Mexico, Benito Juarez, gave him honorary Mexican citizenship.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

After his death, his friends and colleagues created the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Stiftung in German) to continue von Humboldt's generous support of young scientists. Although the original endowment was lost in the German hyperinflation of the 1920s, and again as a result of World War II, the Foundation has been re-endowed by the German government to award young scientists and distinguished senior scientists from abroad. It plays an important role in attracting foreign researchers to work in Germany and enabling German researchers to work abroad for a period.

Dedications

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last major work, Eureka: A Prose Poem, to von Humboldt. Humboldt's attempt to unify the sciences in his Kosmos was a big inspiration for Poe's project.

Charles Darwin makes frequent reference to Humboldt's work in his Voyage of the Beagle, where Darwin describes his own scientific exploration of the Americas.

Recognitions by contemporaries

Wilhelm von Humboldt: "Alexander is destined to combine ideas and follow chains of thoughts which would otherwise have remained unknown for ages. His depth, his sharp mind and his incredible speed are a rare combination."[citation needed]

Charles Darwin: "He was the greatest travelling scientist who ever lived." – "I have always admired him; now I worship him."[citation needed]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Humboldt showers us with true treasures."[citation needed]

Friedrich von Schiller: "Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother - because he shows off more!"[citation needed]

Simón Bolívar: "Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors, he is the true discoverer of America."[citation needed]

José de la Luz y Caballero: "Columbus gave Europe a New World; Humboldt made it known in its physical, material, intellectual, and moral aspects."[citation needed]

Napoléon Bonaparte: "You have been studying Botanics? Just like my wife!"[citation needed]

Claude Louis Berthollet: "This man is as knowledgeable as a whole academy."[citation needed]

Thomas Jefferson: "I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met."[citation needed]

Emil Du Bois-Reymond: "Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt. We are all his family."[citation needed]

Robert G. Ingersoll: "He was to science what Shakespeare was to the drama."[citation needed]

Publications

Scientific Works

Le voyage aux régions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799-1804, par Alexandre de Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland (Paris, 1807, etc.), consisted of thirty folio and quarto volumes, and comprised a considerable number of subordinate but important works. Among these may be enumerated

  • Vue des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique (2 vols. folio, 1810);
  • Examen critique de l'histoire de la géographie du Nouveau Continent (1814-1834);
  • Atlas géographique et physique du royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne (1811);
  • Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne (1811);
  • Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1805, now very rare);
  • Relation historique du Voyage aux Régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, etc. (1814-1825), an unfinished narrative of his travels, including the Essai politique sur l'île de Cuba.
  • Monographie des melastomacées (1833)

The Nova genera et species plantarum (7 vols. folio, 1815-1825), containing descriptions of above 4500 species of plants collected by Humboldt and Bonpland, was mainly compiled by Carl Sigismund Kunth; J. Oltmanns assisted in preparing the Recueil d'observations astronomiques (1808); Cuvier, Latreille, Valenciennes and Gay-Lussac cooperated in the Recueil d'observations de zoologie et d'anatomie comparée (1805-1833).

Humboldt's Ansichten der Natur (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1808) went through three editions in his lifetime, and was translated into nearly every European language.

The results of his Asiatic journey were published in Fragments de géologie et de climatologie asiatiques (2 vols. 8vo, 1831), and in Asie centrale (3 vols. 8vo, 1843) an enlargement of the earlier work. The memoirs and papers read by him before scientific societies, or contributed by him to scientific periodicals, are too numerous for specification.

Humboldt's correspondence

Since his death, considerable portions of his correspondence have been made public. The first of these, in order both of time and of importance, is his Briefe an Varnhagen von Ense (Leipzig, 1860). This was followed, in rapid succession, by Briefwechsel mit einem jungen Freunde (Friedrich Althaus, Berlin, 1861); Briefwechsel mit Heinrich Berghaus (3 vols., Jena, 1863); Correspondence scientifique e littéraire (2 vols., Paris, 1865?1869); "Lettres à Marc-Aug. Pictet", published in Le Globe, tome vii. (Geneva, 1868); Briefe an Bunsen (Leipzig, 1869); Briefe zwischen Humboldt und Gauss (1877); Briefe an seinen Bruder Wilhelm (Stuttgart, 1880); Jugendbriefe an W. G. Wegener (Leipzig, 1896); in addition to some other collections of lesser importance. An octavo edition of Humboldt's principal works was published in Paris by Tb. Morgand (1864-1866). See also, Karl von Baer, Bulletin de l'acad. des sciences de St-Pétersbourg, xvii. 529 (1859); R. Murchison, Proceedings, Geog. Society of London, vi. (1859); L. Agassiz, American Jour. of Science, xxviii. 96 (1859); Proc. Roy. Society, X. xxxix.; A. Quetelet, Annuaire de l'acad. des sciences (Brussels, 1860), p. 97; J. Mädler, Geschichte der Himmelskunde, ii. 113; J.C.Houzeau, Bibl. astronomique, ii. 168 (A. M. C.).

Biographies and Studies of his work

A biography of Humboldt is that of Professor Karl Bruhns (3 vols., 8vo, Leipzig, 1872), translated into English by the Misses Lasseil in 1873. An 1852 biography, 'Lives of the Brothers Humboldt' is freely available (see external links below). Brief accounts of his career are given by A. Dove in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, and by S. Gunther in Alexander von Humboldt (Berlin, 1900).

Humboldt's effect on American scientists and environmentalists (Clarence King, Jeremiah N. Reynolds, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir) is examined in The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, by Aaron Sachs (Viking, 2006).

Gerard Helferich's 2004 biography "Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey that Changed the World". The book provides a descriptive account of Humboldt's journey through Latin America that utilizes the journal and notes of Humboldt himself. (Gotham Books, 2004)

Daniel Kehlmann's 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt, translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway as Measuring the World: a Novel in 2006, explores von Humboldt's life through a lens of historical fiction, contrasting his character and contributions to science to those of Carl Friedrich Gauss.

An essay entitled Journey to the Top of the World details Humboldt's South American exploration and America's interest in him. The essay is chapter one of David McCullough's book, Brave Companions: Portraits in History, (Prentice Hall Press, 1992).

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Humboldt, Alexander von (1811). Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. F. Schoell, Paris.  (French)
  2. ^ McCaa, Robert (1997-12-08). "The Peopling of Mexico from Origins to Revolution". The Population History of North America. Richard Steckel and Michael Haines (eds.). Cambridge University Press. http://www.hist.umn.edu/~rmccaa/mxpoprev/cambridg3.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-18. 
  3. ^ Gerard Helferich, Humboldt’s Cosmos (Ney York: Gotham Books, 2005), 25.
  4. ^ Alexander Von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinocial Regions of the New Continent during Years 1799-1804 (London, 1814), Vol. 1, pp.34-35
  5. ^ Matthew Fontaine Maury Scientist of the Sea by Frances Leigh Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick New Jersey, p.199 (1963); The State University Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 63-10564.
  6. ^ a b Pratt, Mary Louise (1997). Imperial Eyes. Routledge, London. 
  7. ^ Sachs 2007, p.1
  8. ^ Quoted in Dickinson & Howarth 1933, p.145
  9. ^ Beilage zu No. 102 der (Augsburger) Allgemeinen Zeitung from 12. April 1849
  10. ^ Margarita Bowen: Empiricism and Geographical Thought, Cambridge 1981.
  11. ^ all information from Wolf-Dieter Grün: The English editions of the Kosmos. Lecture at Alexander von Humboldt. Science in Britain and Germany during his lifetime. Joint Symposium of the Royal Society and the German Historical Institute, London on 1 October 1983
  12. ^ Havelock Henry Ellis (1927). "Sexual Inversion". Studies in the Psychology of Sex 2: 39. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13611/13611-h/13611-h.htm#2_Page_39. 
  13. ^ Colonialism and Homosexuality, by Robert F. Aldrich, Routledge, London 2003, p. 29.
  14. ^ Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality pp.28
  15. ^ The Life and Times of Alexander Von Humboldt, by Helmut de Terra. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1955, p. 63.
  16. ^ Helferich, Gerard (2004). Humbold't Cosmos. pp. 312. 

References

Dickinson, Robert Eric; and O.J.R. Howarth (1933). The Making of Geography (online Universal Digital Library, facsimile of original ed.). Oxford: The Clarendon Press. OCLC 9640382. http://www.archive.org/details/makingofgeograph009224mbp. 
Helferich, Gerard (2004). Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American journey that changed the way we see the world. New York: Gotham Books. ISBN 978-1-59240-052-2. OCLC 54758735. 
Sachs, Aaron (2007). The Humboldt Current: A European explorer and his American disciples. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-921519-5. OCLC 74522263. 

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This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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Self-portrait of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander, Baron von Humboldt (1814)

Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, Baron von Humboldt (14 September 1769 - 6 May 1859) was a German naturalist and explorer, and the younger brother of the diplomat and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt.

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Sourced

  • von Humboldt (seeing a newspaper containing slanderous falsehoods against Jefferson on the President's desk) : Why do you not have the fellow hung who dares to write these abominable lies?
    Jefferson : What! hang the guardians of the public morals? No, sir, — rather would I protect the spirit of freedom which dictates even that degree of abuse. Put that paper into your pocket, my good friend, carry it with you to Europe, and when you hear any one doubt the reality of American freedom, show them that paper, and tell them where you found it.
    Humboldt : But is it not shocking that virtuous characters should be defamed?
    Jefferson : Let their actions refute such libels. Believe me, virtue is not long darkened by the clouds of calumny; and the temporary pain which it causes is infinitely overweighed by the safety it insures against degeneracy in the principles and conduct of public functionaries. When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.
    • Conversation reported in B.L. Rayner, Life of Jefferson (1834), p. 356. The exact date is not known, but the conversation took place in one of several meetings with the President during Humboldt's visit to Washington, D.C., from June 1 to June 27, 1804.

Equinoctial Regions of America (1814-1829)

As translated by Thomasina Ross

  • Devoted from my earliest youth to the study of nature, feeling with enthusiasm the wild beauties of a country guarded by mountains and shaded by ancient forests, I experienced in my travels, enjoyments which have amply compensated for the privations inseparable from a laborious and often agitated life.
  • One of the noblest characteristics which distinguish modern civilization from that of remoter times is, that it has enlarged the mass of our conceptions, rendered us more capable of perceiving the connection between the physical and intellectual world, and thrown a more general interest over objects which heretofore occupied only a few scientific men, because those objects were contemplated separately, and from a narrower point of view.
  • The expression of vanity and self-love becomes less offensive, when it retains something of simplicity and frankness.
  • Our imagination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on little things.
  • In order to ameliorate without commotion new institutions must be made, as it were, to rise out of those which the barbarism of centuries has consecrated. It will one day seem incredible that until the year 1826 there existed no law in the Great Antilles to prevent the sale of young infants and their separation from their parents, or to prohibit the degrading custom of marking the negroes with a hot iron, merely to enable these human cattle to be more easily recognized.

Kosmos (1845 - 1847)

  • The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion. These special departments in the great domain of natural science are, moreover, capable of being reciprocally fructified by means of the appropriative forces by which they are endowed.
  • While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more enobled by mental cultivation than others, but none in themselves nobler than others. All are in like degree designed for freedom; a freedom which, in the ruder conditions of society, belongs only to the individual, but which, in social states enjoying political institutions, appertains as a right to the whole body of the community.
  • From the remotest nebulæ and from the revolving double stars, we have descended to the minutest organisms of animal creation, whether manifested in the depths of ocean or on the surface of our globe, and to the delicate vegetable germs which clothe the naked declivity of the ice-crowned mountain summit; and here we have been able to arrange these phenomena according to partially known laws; but other laws of a more mysterious nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world, in which is comprised the human species in all its varied conformation, its creative intellectual power, and the languages to which it has given existence. A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.
  • The most powerful influence exercised by the Arabs on general natural physics was that directed to the advances of chemistry; a science for which this race created a new era.(...) Besides making laudatory mention of that which we owe to the natural science of the Arabs in both the terrestrial and celestial spheres, we must likewise allude to their contributions in separate paths of intellectual development to the general mass of mathematical science.
    • Cosmos, H.G. Bohn, 1860, v2, p.589,595

Attributed

  • Cruelty to animals is one of the most significant vices of a low and ignoble people. Wherever one notices them, they constitute a sure sign of ignorance and brutality which cannot be painted over even by all the evidence of wealth and luxury. Cruelty to animals cannot exist together with true education and true learning.
  • Only what we have wrought into our character during life can we take away with us.

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From LoveToKnow 1911

FRIEDRICH HEINRICH ALEXANDER, BARON HUMBOLDT VON (1769-1859), German naturalist and traveller, was born at Berlin, on the 14th of September 1769. His father, who was a major in the Prussian army, belonged to a Pomeranian family of consideration, and was rewarded for his services during the Seven Years' War with the post of royal chamberlain. He married in 1766 Maria Elizabeth von Colomb, widow of Baron von Hollwede, and had by her two sons, of whom the younger is the subject of this article. The childhood of Alexander von Humboldt was not a promising one as regards either health or intellect. His characteristic tastes, however, soon displayed themselves; and from his fancy for collecting and labelling plants, shells and insects he received the playful title of "the little apothecary." The care of his education, on the unexpected death of his father in 1779, devolved upon his mother, who discharged the trust with constancy and judgment. Destined for a political career, he studied finance during six months at the university of Frankfort-on-the-Oder; and a year later, April 25, 1789, he matriculated at Göttingen, then eminent for the lectures of C. G. Heyne and J. F. Blumenbach. His vast and varied powers were by this time fully developed; and during the vacation of 1789 he gave a fair earnest of his future performances in a scientific excursion up the Rhine, and in the treatise thence issuing, Mineralogische Beobachtungen fiber einige Basalte am Rhein (Brunswick, 1790). His native passion for distant travel was confirmed by the friendship formed by him at Göttingen with George Forster, Heyne's son-in-law, the distinguished companion of Captain Cook's second voyage. Henceforth his studies, which his rare combination of parts enabled him to render at once multifarious, rapid and profound, were directed with extraordinary insight and perseverance to the purpose of preparing himself for his distinctive calling as a scientific explorer. With this view he studied commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, geology at Freiberg under A. G. Werner, anatomy at Jena under J. C. Loder, astronomy and the use of scientific instruments under F. X. von Zach and J. G. Kohler. His researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg led to the publication in 1793 of his Florae Fribergensis Specimen; and the results of a prolonged course of experiments on the phenomena of muscular irritability, then recently discovered by L. Galvani, were contained in his Versuche fiber die gereizte Muskeland Nervenfaser (Berlin, 1797), enriched in the French translation with notes by Blumenbach.

In 1794 he was admitted to the intimacy of the famous Weimar coterie, and contributed (June 1795) to Schiller's new periodical, Die Horen, a philosophical allegory entitled Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius. In the summer of 1790 he paid a flying visit to England in company with Forster. In 1792 and 1797 he was in Vienna; in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. He had obtained in the meantime official employment, having been appointed assessor of mines at Berlin, February 29, 1792. Although the service of the state was consistently regarded by him but as an apprenticeship to the service of science, he fulfilled its duties with such conspicuous ability that he not only rapidly rose to the highest post in his department, but was besides entrusted with several important diplomatic missions. The death of his mother, on the 19th of November 1796, set him free to follow the bent of his genius, and, finally severing his official connexions, he waited for an opportunity of executing his long-cherished schemes of travel. On the postponement of Captain Baudin's proposed voyage of circumnavigation, which he had been officially invited to accompany, he left Paris for Marseilles with Aime Bonpland, the designated botanist of the frustrated expedition, hoping to join Bonaparte in Egypt. Means of transport, however, were not forthcoming, and the two travellers eventually found their way to Madrid, where the unexpected patronage of the minister d'Urquijo determined them to make Spanish America the scene of their explorations.

Armed with powerful recommendations, they sailed in the "Pizarro" from Corunna, on the 5th of June 1799, stopped six days at Teneriffe for the ascent of the Peak, and landed, on the xiii. 28 a 16th of July, at Cumana. There Humboldt observed, on the night of the 12-13th of November, that remarkable meteorshower which forms the starting-point of our acquaintance with the periodicity of the phenomenon; thence he proceeded with Bonpland to Caracas; and in February 1800 he left the coast for the purpose of exploring the course of the Orinoco. This trip, which lasted four months, and covered 1725 m. of wild and uninhabited country, had the important result of establishing the existence of a communication between the water-systems of the Orinoco and Amazon, and of determining the exact position of the bifurcation. On the 24th of November the two friends set sail for Cuba, and after a stay of some months regained the mainland at Cartagena. Ascending the swollen stream of the Magdalena, and crossing the frozen ridges of the Cordilleras, they reached Quito after a tedious and difficult journey on the 6th of January 1802. Their stay there was signalized by the ascent of Pichincha and Chimborazo, and terminated in an expedition to the sources of the Amazon en route for Lima. At Callao Humboldt observed the transit of Mercury on the 9th of November, and studied the fertilizing properties of guano, the introduction of which into Europe was mainly due to his writings. A tempestuous sea-voyage brought them to the shores of Mexico, and after a year's residence in that province, followed by a short visit to the United States, they set sail for Europe from the mouth of the Delaware, and landed at Bordeaux on the 3rd of August 1804.

Humboldt may justly be regarded as having in this memorable expedition laid the foundation in their larger bearings of the sciences of physical geography and meteorology. By his delineation (in 1817) of "isothermal lines," he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries. He first investigated the rate of decrease in mean temperature with increase of elevation above the sealevel, and afforded, by his inquiries into the origin of tropical storms, the earliest clue to the detection of the more complicated law governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes; while his essay on the geography of plants was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. His discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth's magnetic force from the poles to the equator was communicated to the Paris Institute in a memoir read by him on the 7th of December 1804, and its importance was attested by the speedy emergence of rival claims. His services to geology were mainly based on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the New World. He showed that they fell naturally into linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures; and by his demonstration of the igneous origin of rocks previously held to be of aqueous formation, he contributed largely to the elimination of erroneous views.

The reduction into form and publication of the encyclopaedic mass of materials - scientific, political and archaeological - collected by him during his absence from Europe was now Humboldt's most urgent desire. After a short trip to Italy with Gay-Lussac for the purpose of investigating the law of magnetic declination, and a sojourn of two years and a half in his native city, he finally, in the spring of 1808, settled in Paris with the purpose of securing the scientific co-operation required for bringing his great work through the press. This colossal task, which he at first hoped would have occupied but two years, eventually cost him twenty-one, and even then remained incomplete. With the exception of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was the most famous man in Europe. A chorus of applause greeted him from every side. Academies, both native and foreign, were eager to enrol him among their members. Frederick William III. of Prussia conferred upon him the honour, without exacting the duties, attached to the post of royal chamberlain, together with a pension of 2500 thalers, afterwards doubled. He refused the appointment of Prussian minister of public instruction in 1810. In 1814 he accompanied the allied sovereigns to London. Three years later he was summoned by the king of Prussia to attend him at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. Again in the autumn of 1822 he accompanied the same monarch to the congress of Verona, proceeded thence with the royal party to Rome and Naples, and returned to Paris in the spring of 1823. The French capital he had long regarded as his true home. There he found, not only scientific sympathy, but the social stimulus which his vigorous and healthy mind eagerly craved. He was equally in his element as the lion of the salons and as the savant of the institute and the observatory. Thus, when at last he received from his sovereign a summons to join his court at Berlin, he obeyed indeed, but with deep and lasting regret. The provincialism of his native city was odious to him. He never ceased to rail against the bigotry without religion, aestheticism without culture, and philosophy without common sense, which he found dominant on the banks of the Spree. The unremitting benefits and sincere attachment of two well-meaning princes secured his gratitude, but could not appease his discontent. At first he sought relief from the "nebulous atmosphere" of his new abode by frequent visits to Paris; but as years advanced his excursions were reduced to accompanying the monotonous "oscillations" of the court between Potsdam and Berlin. On the 12th of May 1827 he settled permanently in the Prussian capital, where his first efforts were directed towards the furtherance of the science of terrestrial magnetism. For many years it had been one of his favourite schemes to secure, by means of simultaneous observations at distant points, a thorough investigation of the nature and law of "magnetic storms"- a term invented by him to designate abnormal disturbances of the earth's magnetism. The meeting at Berlin, on the 18th of September 1828, of a newly-formed scientific association, of which he was elected president, gave him the opportunity of setting on foot an extensive system of research in combination with his diligent personal observations. His appeal to the Russian government in 1829 led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia; while his letter to the duke of Sussex, then (April 1836) president of the Royal Society, secured for the undertaking the wide basis of the British dominions. Thus that scientific conspiracy of nations which is one of the noblest fruits of modern civilization was by his exertions first successfully organized.

In 1811, and again in 1818, projects of Asiatic exploration were proposed to Humboldt, first by the Russian, and afterwards by the Prussian government; but on each occasion untoward circumstances interposed, and it was not until he had entered upon his sixtieth year that he resumed his early role of a traveller in the interests of science. Between May and November 1829 he, together with his chosen associates Gustav Rose and C. G. Ehrenberg, traversed the wide expanse of the Russian empire from the Neva to the Yenesei, accomplishing in twenty-five weeks a distance of 9614 miles. The journey, however, though carried out with all the advantages afforded by the immediate patronage of the Russian government, was too rapid to be profitable. Its most important fruits were the correction of the prevalent exaggerated estimate of the height of the CentralAsian plateau, and the discovery of diamonds in the gold-washings of the Ural - a result which Humboldt's Brazilian experiences enabled him to predict, and by predicting to secure.

Between 1830 and 1848 Humboldt was frequently employed in diplomatic missions to the court of Louis Philippe, with whom he always maintained the most cordial personal relations. The death of his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who expired in his arms, on the 8th of April 1836, saddened the later years of his life. In losing him, Alexander lamented that he had "lost half himself." The accession of the crown prince as Frederick William IV., on the death of his father, in June 1840, added to rather than detracted from his court favour. Indeed, the new king's craving for his society became at times so importunate as to leave him only some hours snatched from sleep for the prosecution of his literary labours.

It is not often that a man postpones to his seventy-sixth year, and then successfully executes, the crowning task of his life. Yet this was Humboldt's case. The first two volumes of the Kosmos were published, and in the main composed, between the years 1845 and 1847. The idea of a work which should convey, not only a graphic description, but an imaginative conception of the physical world - which should support generalization by details, and dignify details by generalization, had floated before his mind for upwards of half a century. It first took definite shape in a set of lectures delivered by him before the university of Berlin in the winter of 1827-1828. These lectures formed, as his latest biographer expresses it, "the cartoon for the great fresco of the Kosmos." The scope of this remarkable work may be briefly described as the representation of the unity amid the complexity of nature. In it the large and vague ideals of the 18th are sought to be combined with the exact scientific requirements of the 19th century. And, in spite of inevitable shortcomings, the attempt was in an eminent degree successful. Nevertheless, the general effect of the book is rendered to some extent unsatisfactory by its tendency to substitute the indefinite for the infinite, and thus to ignore, while it does not deny, the existence of a power outside and beyond nature. A certain heaviness of style, too, and laborious picturesqueness of treatment make it more imposing than attractive to the general reader. But its supreme and abiding value consists in its faithful reflection of the mind of a great man. No higher eulogium can be passed on Alexander von Humboldt than that, in attempting, and not unworthily attempting, to portray the universe, he succeeded still more perfectly in portraying his own comprehensive intelligence.

The last decade of his long life - his "improbable" years, as he was accustomed to call them - was devoted to the continuation of this work, of which the third and fourth volumes were published in 1850-1858, while a fragment of a fifth appeared posthumously in 1862. In these he sought to fill up what was wanting of detail as to individual branches of science in the sweeping survey contained in the first volume. Notwithstanding their high separate value, it must be admitted that, from an artistic point of view, these additions were deformities. The characteristic idea of the work, so far as such a gigantic idea admitted of literary incorporation, was completely developed in its opening portions, and the attempt to convert it into a scientific encyclopaedia was in truth to nullify its generating motive. Humboldt's remarkable industry and accuracy were never more conspicuous than in the erection of this latest trophy to his genius. Nor did he rely entirely on his own labours. He owed much of what he accomplished to his rare power of assimilating the thoughts and availing himself of the co-operation of others. He was not more ready to incur than to acknowledge obligations. The notes to Kosmos overflow with laudatory citations, the current coin in which he discharged his intellectual debts.

On the 24th of February 1857 Humboldt was attacked with a slight apoplectic stroke, which passed away without leaving any perceptible trace. It was not until the winter of 1858-1859 that his strength began to decline, and on the ensuing 6th of May he tranquilly expired, wanting but six months of completing his ninetieth year. The honours which had been showered on him during life followed him after death. His remains, previously to being interred in the family resting-place at Tegel, were conveyed in state through the streets of Berlin, and received by the prince-regent with uncovered head at the door of the cathedral. The first centenary of his birth was celebrated on the 14th of September 1869, with equal enthusiasm in the New and Old Worlds; and the numerous monuments erected in his honour, and newly explored regions called by his name, bear witness to the universal diffusion of his fame and popularity.

Humboldt never married, and seems to have been at all times more social than domestic in his tastes. To his brother's family he was, however, much attached; and in his later years the somewhat arbitrary sway of an old and faithful servant held him in more than matrimonial bondage. By a singular example of weakness, he executed, four years before his death, a deed of gift transferring to this man Seifert the absolute possession of his entire property. It is right to add that no undue advantage appears to have been taken of this extraordinary concession. Of the qualities of his heart it is less easy to speak than of those of his head. The clue to his inner life might probably be found in a certain egotism of self-culture scarcely separable from the promptings of genius. Yet his attachments, once formed, were sincere and lasting. He made innumerable friends; and it does not stand on record that he ever lost one. His benevolence was throughout his life active and disinterested. His early zeal for the improvement of the condition of the miners in Galicia and Franconia, his consistent detestation of slavery, his earnest patronage of rising men of science, bear witness to the large humanity which formed the ground-work of his character. The faults of his old age have been brought into undue prominence by the injudicious publication of his letters to Varnhagen von Ense. The chief of these was his habit of smooth speaking, almost amounting to flattery, which formed a painful contrast with the caustic sarcasm of his confidential utterances. His vanity, at all times conspicuous, was tempered by his sense of humour, and was so frankly avowed as to invite sympathy rather than provoke ridicule. After every deduction has been made, he yet stands before us as a colossal figure, not unworthy to take his place beside Goethe as the representative of the scientific side of the culture of his country.

The best biography of Humboldt is that of Professor Karl Bruhns (3 vols., 8vo, Leipzig, 1872), translated into English by the Misses Lasseil in 1873. Brief accounts of his career are given by A. Dove in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, and by S. Gunther in Alexander von Humboldt (Berlin, 1900). The Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799-1804, par Alexandre de Humboldt et Aime Bonpland (Paris, 1807, &c.), consisted of thirty folio and quarto volumes, and comprised a considerable number of subordinate but important works. Among these may be enumerated Vue des Cordilleres et monuments des peuples indigenes de l'Amerique (2 vols. folio, 181o); Examen critique de l'histoire de la geographie du Nouveau Continent (1814-1834); Atlas geographique et physique du royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne (1811); Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne (181 I); Essai sur la geographic des plantes (1805, now very rare); and Relation historique (1814-1825), an unfinished narrative of his travels, including the Essai politique sur rile de Cuba. The Nova genera et species plantarum (7 vols. folio, 1815-1825), containing descriptions of above 4500 species of plants collected by Humboldt and Bonpland, was mainly compiled by C. S. Kunth; J. Oltmanns assisted in preparing the Recueil d'observations astronomiques (1808); Cuvier, Latreille, Valenciennes and Gay-Lussac cooperated in the Recueil d'observations de zoologie et d'anatomie comparee (1805-1833). Humboldt's Ansichten der Natur (Stuttgart and Tubingen, 1808) went through three editions in his lifetime, and was translated into nearly every European language. The results of his Asiatic journey were published in Fragments de geologic et de climatologie asiatiques (2 vols. 8vo, 1831), and in Asie centrale (3 vols. 8vo, 1843) - an enlargement of the earlier work. The memoirs and papers read by him before scientific societies, or contributed by him to scientific periodicals, are too numerous for specification.

Since his death considerable portions of his correspondence have been made public. The first of these, in order both of time and of importance, is his Briefe an Varnhagen von Ense (Leipzig, 1860). This was followed in rapid succession by Briefwechsel mit einem jungen Freunde (Friedrich Althaus, Berlin, 1861); Briefwechsel mit Heinrich Berghaus (3 vols., Jena, 1863); Correspondance scientifique et litteraire (2 vols., Paris, 1865-1869); "Lettres a Marc-Aug. Pictet," published in Le Globe, tome vii. (Geneva, 1868); Briefe an Bunsen (Leipzig, 1869); Briefe zwischen Humboldt and Gauss (1877); Briefe an seinen Bruder Wilhelm (Stuttgart, 1880); Jugendbriefe an W. G. Wegener (Leipzig, 1896); besides some other collections of less note. An octavio edition of Humboldt's principal works was published in Paris by Th. Morgand (1864-1866). See also Karl von Baer, Bulletin de l'acad. des sciences de St-Petersbourg, xvii. 529 (1859); R. Murchison, Proceedings, Geog. Society of London, vi. (1859); L. Agassiz, American Jour. of Science, xxviii. 96 (1859); Proc. Roy. Society, X. xxxix.; A. Quetelet, Annuaire de l'acad. des sciences (Brussels, 1860), p. 97; J. Madler, Geschichte der Himmelskunde, ii. 113; J. C. Houzeau, Bibl. astronomique, ii. 168. (A. M. C.)


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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

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(14.IX.1769 - 6.V.1859)


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[[File:|thumb|250px|Alexander von Humboldt, painting by Joseph Stieler, 1843]]

Alexander von Humboldt ( Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (info • help) 14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) was a Prussian naturalist and explorer. Humboldt's work on botanical geography was very important in the field of biogeography.

Life

Humboldt was born in Berlin. His father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, was a rewarded major in the Prussian Army. He married Maria Elizabeth von Colomb in 1766. The couple had two sons, the younger was Alexander. Alexander's elder brother was the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt.

In his childhood Humboldt already liked to collect plants, shells, and insects. Humboldt's father died very early (in 1799). From that time on his mother took care of his education.

Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled to Latin America and was the first scientist who wrote about it. He was one of the first who said that South America and Africa was once one continent. Late in his life he attempted to bring together different fields of science in his work Kosmos.

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This article includes text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Please add to the article as needed.








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