Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt September 14, 1769 to May 6, 1859) was born in Germany to a wealthy, aristocratic family which provided the means to him becoming highly educated in botany, geology, mathematics, anatomy, astronomy, surveying, cartography, many foreign languages, and skilled in the use of many scientific instruments. Von Humboldt’s education and experiences allowed him to function as a mathematician, geographer, naturalist, explorer, surveyor, illustrator, botanist, astronomer, and mineralogist. Von Humboldt understood the scientific method, and he was a very prolific writer who spent years traveling to the Americas and Europe, recording and chronicling many aspects of the natural environment. Von Humboldt wrote 36 books and numerous articles detailing his travels and scientific observations.

Early in his life, von Humboldt and his associate, Aime Bonpland, got the wanderlust and were able to secure funding by the Spanish monarchy to travel to South America, Cuba, Venezuela, the Andes Mountains, and Mexico as mining experts to collect plants, seeds, minerals, and to assess economic opportunities for the Spanish government. Von Humboldt and Bonpland spent five years on this expedition, traveling extensively and visiting rain forests, agricultural areas, and ancient ruins; trekking up mountains; surveying active volcanoes; taking scientific readings, mapping seaports; and conducting population census observations. In his travels, Von Humboldt and Bonpland met with common folks, scientists, dignitaries, and government officials. While on this journey, Von Humboldt had the opportunity to visit the United States where he met with President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had recently made the Louisiana Purchase, and was very interested in learning more about Mexico, our neighbor to the south. Von Humboldt was able to provide Jefferson with numerous maps of the area, along with a fairly thorough analysis of the region. This analysis also used census data to determine the population centers of Mexico. Upon returning to Spain, Von Humboldt published the book, “Geography of Plants,” in 1807. This book detailed how plants were distributed based on geography, geology, and climate. “Geography of Plants” is thought to be one of the first books on ecology.

von Humboldt moved to Paris and spent the next 21 years of his life compiling all the information he observed in the New World and detailing it in a 4,000 page journal. Besides chronicling many new species of plants and animals, Von Humboldt mentioned the ancient civilizations and described localized climate change as a result of deforesting large sections of rainforest to establish cocoa plantations. He made maps of the area, studied the geology of volcanoes, offered views of climatology where temperatures are a function of elevation and latitude, charted the way air and water move to create bands of climate, made observations that plant distribution was a function of climate and geography, spoke about land masses being on large plates that could move, created isotherms to chart mean temperature throughout the globe, and located magnetic equator, among other accomplishments. As part of all his observations, Von Humboldt offered the idea of “Unity of Nature,” which spoke of the interrelatedness of all the physical sciences. Von Humboldt described nature as being sublimely eloquent.

Following his stay in Paris, von Humboldt moved back to Berlin where he accepted an invitation to conduct a tour of Russia to assess mining opportunities for the government. Unlike his trip to the Americas, the trip to Russia was hurried and restricted by the government. Despite the setbacks, Von Humboldt was able to glean three books from his travels across this vast country.

In the later part of his life, von Humboldt returned to Germany to expand on his idea of unity of nature, and drafted a lecture series that he delivered at the University of Berlin. From these lectures, Von Humboldt thought to expand on his Unity of Nature idea, and began drafting what became a five-part series of books known as “Kosmos.” Von Humboldt chose “Kosmos” because the Greek translation means “beautifully ordered and harmonious system.” Von Humboldt wrote four volumes of Kosmos, beginning when he was 71; he was halfway through the fifth and final volume when he died at age 89. The fifth volume was finished using the notes that he made. “Kosmos” was an extremely popular and influential series, laying the groundwork for many of our modern earth sciences. Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and countless others were inspired after reading this work. It was said that Von Humboldt was the first explorer to utilize the scientific method to analyze the New World and many of his observations and deductions are still valid today.

Article by FCFCDB