Freiherr von Alexander Humboldt

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Alexander Humboldt, Freiherr von (hŭm´bōlt, Ger. älĕksän´dər frī´hĕr fən hŏŏm´bôlt), 1769–1859, German naturalist and explorer. His full name is Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. Educated at Göttingen, he studied at Hamburg, Freiberg, and Jena and made several scientific excursions in Europe. In 1792 he was appointed assessor of mines in Berlin. From 1799 to 1804 he made his renowned expedition with A. J. A. Bonpland to Central and South America and Cuba, a journey that did much to lay the foundations for the sciences of physical geography and meteorology. The major ocean current off S America, which was studied by Humboldt, once carried his name, but is now called the Peru Current. He ascended peaks in the Peruvian Andes to study the relation of temperature and altitude, made observations leading to the discovery of meteor shower periodicity, and investigated the fertilizing properties of guano. In 1808 he settled in Paris and published the findings of his New World expedition in Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland (23 vol., 1805–1834), often cited by the title of Part I, Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent. Humboldt established the use of isotherms in map making; studied the origin and course of tropical storms, the increase in magnetic intensity from the equator toward the poles, and volcanology; and made pioneer investigations on the relationship between geographical environment and plant distribution. In 1827 he settled in his native Berlin at the request of the Prussian king. His interest in terrestrial magnetism led him to effect one of the first instances of international scientific cooperation, by forming a system of meteorological stations throughout Russia and the British colonies. In 1829, Humboldt made an expedition to Russia and Siberia. In his Kosmos (5 vol., 1845–1862; tr. 1849–1858) he sought to combine the vague ideals of the 18th cent. with the exact scientific requirements of the 19th cent. and to formulate a concept of unity amid the complexity of nature.

See biography by C. Kellner (1963); D. Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (1973); L. D. Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009).

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Humboldt, Friedrich Heinrich Alexander, Freiherr von (1769–1859) A German naturalist, physical geographer, biogeographer, geologist, vulcanologist, and mining engineer, who began travelling extensively after the death of his mother in 1796. Accompanied by the French surgeon and botanist Aimé Bonpland, he set out to join Napoleon in Egypt, but their plans changed and they went instead to Madrid. Their experiences in Spain made them decide to explore Spanish America. They embarked in 1799 and spent 5 years in the South American tropics, exploring the drainage basins of the Amazon and Orinoco, investigating the properties of guano, measuring the temperature of the ocean current that bears his name, and studying the flora and fauna of the forests and savannah, returning with more than 30 cases of botanical specimens. He wrote on many subjects, his most important botanical work being the 7-volume Nova genera et species plantarum (1815–25), written in collaboration with A. J. A. Bonpland and C. S. Kunth as part six of the 30-volume Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland (1805–34). In Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gewächse (Ideas on a physiognomy of plants, 1806) he proposed the concept of biogeography.

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Humboldt, Friedrich Heinrich Alexander, Baron von (1769–1859) German naturalist and explorer. He explored (1799–1804) South America, studying volcanoes, tropical storms and the increase in magnetic intensity from the Equator towards the poles. His five-volume Kosmos (1845–62) describes the physical universe.