Ralph Waldo Emerson described Humboldt as “one of those wonders of the world...who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.”
So who in the world was Alexander von Humboldt?
He was born in 1769 in the kingdom of Prussia, the central and most powerful state of the empire of Germany. His father, chamberlain in the king’s court, died when Alexander was nine. The money in his family came principally from his mother.
Young Alexander was sickly and not a particularly good student, especially in comparison to his brother Wilhelm (who would become an eminent German academic and linguist, and Alexander’s staunchest supporter.) His only discernible talent was for drawing.
He blossomed in college because he could study many subjects, though geology was an early passion. His health became robust and would remain so for most of his arduous life. His mother wanted him to pursue a career in finance, but during the year he spent at the Academy of Commerce he taught himself mineralogy, and was soon hired as an assessor of mines. He was so successful he was offered the directorship of the government’s Department of Mines, but he confessed that he had been more interested in the geology the mines revealed, and he really wanted to travel.
However, he had been popular with the miners and designed a respirator so they could breathe easier and a better lamp so they could see without igniting gases in the mines. He also set up a free school for miners which he paid for, and then wrote an official report on its success. It began what became an international movement for better education for the working class.
Humboldt continued his varied studies, and took particular interest in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He met many of the leading intellects of Europe. He traveled as much as he could in the mountains of Europe, including notable voyages with naturalist and explorer Georg Foster, who taught him much of what he would need on his own expeditions.
When his mother died in 1796, Humboldt was suddenly wealthy and independent. He prepared himself for epic travel through studying several sciences and gathering the best scientific instruments he could find from across Europe.
But it was a difficult time for travel, with many European nations at war on the seas as well as land. Several planned expeditions were aborted, including one to Africa. But a desperate trip to Spain led to a meeting with the Spanish king, who provided Humboldt and botanist Bonpland with royal passports to the otherwise forbidden colonies of South America. The king may have been charmed by Humboldt’s enthusiasm for advancing science, but he might also have been impressed by Humboldt’s knowledge of mining and minerals, as well as his willingness to finance the voyage himself.
|illustration by James Gurney|
When von Humboldt set out for South America, Europeans had not explored vast areas of this continent. Maps were sketchy and inaccurate, if they existed. Even charts of the waters off the coasts were faulty. When his ship approached, the captain consulted charts of three seafaring nations—all of them were wrong.
Whatever ideas Europeans had about these areas or the people living in them were most likely sensational images and stereotypes propagated by those with a political or commercial agenda, even by men who had never actually been there. The isolation was political as well as physical—the Spanish government had forbidden explorers from entering the countries it controlled. So Humboldt’s royal passport was not only astonishingly valuable, it was rare.
The physical challenges were formidable enough. Humboldt and his party navigated wild and unmapped rivers without the benefit of engines, climbed some of the highest mountains in the world (including the fabled Chimborazo) without oxygen or modern climbing apparatus, coped with the heat, the rains, the mosquitoes and other insects, with little in the way of resources except what their own ingenuity could provide.
He carried the most sophisticated instruments he could find in Europe to measure and record everything from geographical position to the time and temperature. He gathered plants and rocks, and peered into volcanoes. His professed goal was to “study the great harmonies of nature.”
He carefully noted the individuality of lifeforms and features, but in studying physical phenomena (as he later wrote in the introduction to Cosmos) “we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent on each other.”
Humboldt believed that humans can't really know nature, but only what they experience through their own perceptions. He also understood that people relate to nature through impressions and emotions. So in his books he presented data objectively but also described images "impressed by the senses upon the inner man, that is, upon his ideas and feelings.”
|Humboldt and Bonpland. Illustration by Otto Roth Von Holztich|
Perhaps the most fascinating and most celebrated journey was navigating the Orinoco River, the most arduous, consistently dangerous and (beset by mosquitoes and other insects) physically debilitating undertaking. But he proved that the Orinoco and Amazon basins were connected, which European maps of the time denied.
He encountered Native tribes that did not match European stereotypes. They were diverse, with a variety of cultures and societies, with a multiplicity of languages, all very much related to place. Some had practiced agriculture for generations, contrary to European belief. Humboldt grew to respect the strength and wisdom he saw among free tribes, which made witnessing the subjugation and slavery imposed on other tribes by the Spanish all the more repugnant. They “progressively lost that vigour of character, and that natural vivacity, which in every state of society are the noble fruits of independence.”
In Mexico he studied the remnants of the Inca and the Aztecs, their calendars and gardens, fortresses and pyramids. He was the first to reveal them as evidence of highly developed cultures.
Before returning to Europe, he made a short but triumphant visit to Philadelphia and Washington. He spent considerable time at the White House with President Jefferson. The information he brought from Mexico and South America proved invaluable, and his descriptions of the science he practiced on his voyage informed future expeditions from Washington.
Though this was his only visit, Humboldt felt at home in the U.S. He loved the openness and enthusiasm, and he valued it as a beacon of freedom, except for the scourge of slavery that he detested and denounced.
The Long View
His years of financing his own expeditions were not as ruinous as his years financing his own publication. Some of his books became so expensive to produce (with over a thousand maps and illustrations) that few of them sold. Humboldt’s fortune was spent, and he was in debt. “And in the end,” writes historian Laura Dassow Walls, “Humboldt could not afford a complete set of his own works.”
He was forced to return to Berlin, and to become a kind of intellectual court jester to the royal court. But he also gave a series of highly popular lectures that became the basis for his crowning work, the three volumes of Cosmos.
But it wasn’t until after a final voyage—to Siberia—and the books it generated that he actually began to assemble Cosmos. He was 75.
Two volumes of a projected four-volume work were published in his lifetime, and a third after his death in 1859 at the age of 89. No one knows if a fourth volume ever actually existed. But he lived long enough to see the first volume become enormously popular and celebrated, making him even more famous than before.
There are probably at least two reasons that Humboldt’s contributions aren’t well remembered. First, because he made them in so many areas that are now different disciplines, including what is now human geography, plant geography and climatology, as well as botany, ethnology, zoology and geology. He studied electricity and the earth’s magnetism. “In science, Humboldt pushed the borders of several fields by attempting to combine them, on a global scale," writes Aaron Sachs.
His contributions were so many and various, there is not just one to attach to his name. He studied and named the Humboldt Current off the coast of Peru. He recognized and named the Jurassic period in geological time. He collected more than 60,000 new and rare plants. He contributed to the science of volcanoes and earthquakes, and therefore advanced understanding of those mighty forces in shaping the world. Even his early work making miners safer and creating educational opportunities would alone earn an historical reputation.
A second reason for Humboldt’s obscurity may be that insights he argued for were far ahead of their time, but are widely accepted in ours. The distance in time is too great, with many intervening figures, for Humboldt’s contribution to be easily remembered.
But it is simply true that Humboldt discussed the impact on climate of deforestation and other alterations in the environment. He recognized the intelligence of animals, and the interrelationship (and basic humanity) of all humans. He described how everything in nature is connected, and reminded readers “man is part of nature,” which is an easily forgotten insight of increasing importance.
He saw that human societies can be understood only within their particular natural habitat, linking people and place. He noted as others would centuries later that the way to save the South American forests is to save their Indigenous inhabitants.
Humboldt not only created his own network of scientists but created the prototypes for international science organizations of today. His successful efforts to encourage several nations (including Russia and England) to set up science stations around the world to monitor geomagnetic and meteorological data set the precedent for global scientific monitoring ever since, from manned and automated outposts to satellites.
And of course, he proposed an ecological vision of interrelationships that is now well accepted in the sciences and well beyond. But Humboldt went even further in his cosmic vision, uniting the entire physical world—from distant galaxies to the smallest lifeforms-- with human perceptions and feelings, which is still beyond Western science, though some of it is moving in that direction.