Humboldt, Alexander Von

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Humboldt, Alexander Von



Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the most famous German of his time, was celebrated as a geographer, explorer, and naturalist; he was less well known for his valuable contributions to the development of the social sciences. He came from a Pomeranian family that had been lately ennobled. After the early death of his father, a major in the Prussian Army, his bourgeois mother ceased to keep up the family’s connections with the court; instead, she employed excellent private tutors to set her two sons on the road traveled by the bour geois elite—the sciences. Humboldt studied at Frankfurt on the Oder, Göttingen, Hamburg, and Freiberg (in Saxony). C. W. Dohm, Karl Ludwig Willdenow, and Georg Forster, his principal teachers, awakened his interest in political and botanical geography and in exploration. In his youth he also associated with Goethe, Schiller, and many other writers.

With this background he was exceedingly well prepared for his first voyage of exploration, which took place between 1799 and 1804. He was accompanied on this voyage by Aimé Bonpland, the French physician and botanist. Humboldt explored the territories of what are now Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico, sailed up the Casiquiare and determined its longitude and latitude, climbed Mount Chimborazo to the height of 17,900 feet, and suggested various improvements in mining technology and other aspects of the economy to the Spanish colonial authorities.

After a visit to the United States, where he met not only various scientists in Philadelphia but also President Thomas Jefferson, he returned to Europe. He then settled in Paris, where he proceeded to evaluate the results of his expedition and to prepare for a new project of exploration in Asia. This latter expedition did not take place until 1829, after he had spent two years in Berlin.

The preparation, execution, and evaluation of Humboldt’s expeditions were exemplary and won him world fame. The 23 volumes of his travel descriptions (1805–1834) are the most comprehensive ever published by a private individual. He collaborated with German, French, and British scholars to produce the last major achievement of the republic of letters of the eighteenth century and so combined in characteristic fashion the idée encyclopé-dique with his belief in the division of labor among specialists.

Humboldt early rejected the purely utilitarian point of view in science, stressing instead the value of research for the sake of knowledge. This permitted him to give unbiased consideration to social scientific problems. In the field of anthropology, for example, he was able to appreciate without prejudice the culture of the Indian tribes of South America, since he did not believe in higher or lower races but rather in the unity of mankind and its destiny of liberty. In his celebrated Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1811–1812), he laid the foundations of modern regional geography on the basis of physical geography, using Mexico as his example. His portrait of colonial rule is based on statistical evidence, for Humboldt managed to gain access to the jealously guarded Spanish colonial archives. Both for the social sciences and for geography this early description of Mexico is still a useful source book.

Humboldt convincingly refuted Friedrich List’s theory of economic stages. Whereas List conceived of the transition from hunters and gatherers to shepherds and peasants in terms of the development of material capital under Old World conditions, Humboldt demonstrated that in America agriculture must have evolved from gathering, without the intermediate stage of pastoral life, since no large domesticable animals had existed in the New World.

Political scientists should appreciate that Humboldt was one of the first Europeans to predict a great future for the United States. Publication of his travels also gave intellectual aid and moral support to the South American wars of independence.

Humboldt’s efforts in the field of demography are of enduring value. He introduced the examination of the quotient of extremes into population statistics, thus making it possible to supplement the abstract figure of population density by citing the low quotient in countries uniformly densely (or sparsely) settled and the high quotient in countries unevenly settled. He also made allowance for population dynamics, furnishing birth and mortality rates for Mexico. These figures were long unavailable for such regions.

Humboldt’s old age was devoted to completion of his Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (1845–1858), in which he expanded his geographical thinking into a more general “description of the world in physical terms.” His great prestige in Germany did much to shift attention from predominantly philological studies to the natural sciences.

Hanno Beck

[See alsoGeographyandPopulation, article onThe Field of Demography.]


1805-1834 Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. 23 vols. Paris: Schoell. → Often cited by the title of Part 1: Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du nouveau conti nent. Complete sets are rare and vary in arrangement and collation.

(1811–1812) 1811-1822 Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. 4 vols. London: Longmans. → First published in French.

1843 Asie centrale: Recherches sur les chaines de mon-tagnes et la climatologie comparee. 3 vols. Paris: Gide.

(1845–1858) 1850-1859 Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. 5 vols. New York: Harper. → First published in German.

1959 Gesprdche. Edited by Hanno Beck. Berlin: Akade-mie-Verlag.


Akademie Der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1959 Alex ander von Humboldt, 14.9.1769–6.5.1859: Gedenk-schrift zur 100. Wiederkehr seines Todestages. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Beck, Hanno 1959-1961 Alexander von Humboldt. 2 vols. Wiesbaden (Germany): Steiner. → Volume 1: Von der Bildungsreise zur Forschungsreise: 1769—1804. Volume 2: Vom Reisewerk zum “Kosmos“: 1804–1859.

Bruhns, Karl 1872 Alexander von Humboldt: Eine wissenschaftliche Biographie. 3 vols. Leipzig (Germany): Brockhaus.

Humboldt, Alexander von

views updated Jun 08 2018

Humboldt, Alexander von

German Explorer and Scientist 1769-1859

Alexander von Humboldt was the greatest explorer-scientist of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Humboldt's contributions to science were remarkably diverse. He was the first person to map areas of equal air temperature and pressure, a technique now used in every weather forecast around the world. By measuring the magnetism of rocks in the Alps, he found that Earth's magnetic field reverses its polarity. This fundamental discovery allowed geologists in the twentieth century to prove the theory of continental drift . Humboldt also developed the idea of seismic waves that travel through Earth's surface after an earthquake. In physics, he conducted more than four thousand experiments on electricity and magnetism. Perhaps his most important research, however, concerned the distribution and environmental relationships of plants.

Humboldt's interest in botany developed early on. While a teenager he spent many hours with Karl Willdenow, one of the leading botanists in Europe, collecting and classifying plants in the woods around Berlin. In 1789, while studying at the University of Gottingen, Humboldt met Johann Forster. Forster had accompanied James Cook on a voyage around the world and was one of the best naturalists of his day. On expeditions with Forster to France, England, and the Netherlands, Humboldt learned the techniques of scientific observation, plant classification, and precise measurement that he would employ throughout his long and incredibly productive career.

In 1790, Humboldt began work in plant geography that would revolutionize botany. Humboldt's botanical work was greatly influenced by German natural philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that there was an underlying causal unity in nature and that Earth should be viewed as a single, interconnected whole. Extending these ideas to the study of plants, Humboldt sought to create a universal, holistic science of botany that encompassed both the diversity and connectedness of the natural world. In his words: "Science can only progress by bringing together all of the phenomena and creations that the earth has to offer nothing can be considered in isolation. Nature, despite her seeming diversity, is always a unity."

By 1797 Humboldt had become bored with his work in geology at the German Ministry of Mines. "I was spurred by an uncertain longing for the distant and unknown," he wrote. "For danger at sea the desire for adventures." On June 5, 1799, accompanied by his colleague, the botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt embarked on an expedition to South America to "find out how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life." Landing in Cumana, Venezuela, Humboldt spent the next five years exploring un-charted regions of the Oronoco River, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

During this journey, Humboldt survived attacks by Native Americans, tropical disease, starvation, near drowning in capsized canoes, and shocks from electric eels. Despite incredible hardships, he carried out meticulous observations on South American plants, geography, geology, climate, Aztec art, and native languages. In Ecuador, he mapped the zonation of vegetation on mountain sides and correlated this zonation with climatic changes. In Venezuela, anticipating the field of conservation biology, he analyzed complex relationships between logging, river ecology, and erosion. These fundamental studies of the relationships between plants and their environment laid the foundation for the emergence of the science of ecology during the nineteenth century.

see also Biogeography; Ecology, History of; Plant Community Processes.

Bradford Carlton Lister


Adams, Alexander B. Eternal Quest: The Story of the Great Naturalists. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969.

Botting, Douglas. Humboldt and the Cosmos. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Von Humboldt, Alexander. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859)

views updated May 29 2018

Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859)

German explorer and naturalist

Alexander Humboldt pursued a lifetime of exploration and discovery, and was best known for his expeditions to Central and South America . A master of observation and analysis, Humboldt was also a prolific writer and recorder of his observed scientific data.

Humboldt was born in Berlin, the son of a Prussian army officer and a Huguenot (French Protestant) mother. He experienced poor health as a child and was unimpressive as a student. He was raised under his mother's strict Calvinistic beliefs and remained unmarried throughout his life.

Perhaps his most notable accomplishment was his five-year expedition to South and Central America made from 1799 to 1804. Spain had been preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth and conquest in its American colonies, and it was rare for a learned individual like Humboldt to gain permission to visit these areas. Once there, his perseverance took him to the edges of human endurance.

South America was a largely unknown land, and much of what Humboldt observed was new knowledge. Traveling by foot and canoe, he discovered a connection between the Orinoco and Amazon River systems. He climbed volcanoes in Ecuador and observed how they were positioned in a line, as though following a flaw in the earth's crust . He collected thousands of plant specimens. He observed ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean including one, now called the Peru Current, which was also named after him. No matter where his location or surroundings, Humboldt tirelessly recorded his observations. This proved to be Humboldt's greatest legacy.

Humboldt resided in Paris from 1805 to 1827, enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle that allowed him to associate with many of his fellow professionals. He published more than 30 volumes of his data during this time, proving his excellence as a writer and artist.

Humboldt spent his later years in Berlin, where he had become a notable figure. At the invitation of the Russian government, he traveled for three months in the Urals and Siberia, and brought with him his knowledge of mining techniques. The ceremonial trappings of this visit only interfered with his ability to observe the region.

Humboldt died while working on the fifth volume of his book Kosmos. This work was his attempt to give a unified explanation of all existence, and gathered most of the available scientific knowledge of the time. During his life, Humboldt had been a meteorologist, botanist, geologist, geographer, and oceanographer.

See also Cosmology; Ocean circulation and currents

von Humboldt, Alexander

views updated Jun 11 2018

von Humboldt, Alexander

German explorer and scientist

Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist and explorer who founded the field of plant biogeography, the analysis of the distribution of plants throughout the world. Humboldt was born in Germany and apprenticed with several leading German botanists as a young man. He also became trained as a geologist and worked for a time at the German Ministry of Mines.

By 1797, however, Humboldt had developed a wanderlust and thirst for adventure, and in 1799 he set out for South America to find out, as he put it, "how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life." While there, and despite many hardships, Humboldt made significant studies of the botany, zoology, geography, and climate of the region. He was probably the first European to recognize the rich diversity of the tropical flora.

Humboldt discovered that the distribution of plant groups could be correlated with changes in temperature and rainfall, laying the intellectual groundwork for developments in plant ecology that would come a century later. After leaving South America, Humboldt visited the United States and met with Thomas Jefferson, whose own thinking about scientific expeditions in America was probably influenced by these conversations. Humboldt's memory is honored in the names of rivers, mountains, and counties in the western United States.

see also Biogeography; Buffon, Count

Richard Robinson


von Humboldt, Alexander. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

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