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Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a Prussian naturalist and explorer, is one of the founders of modern geography and meteorology. He was born Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin, Germany on September 14, 1769 as the youngest of two sons of a Prussian army officer and his wife, Elizabeth de Colomb. He lost his father at a young age and was raised by his mother. Humboldt’s mother decided to train him for an administrative post in the civil service. It seemed like a good choice for a boy who was often ill and did not learn easily. Humboldt, however, wanted to enter the army. He did not become interested in the sciences until he was 16 and he wound up almost entirely self-taught. Yet, he spent a year at a college in Frankfort-on-the-Oder and then went to the University of Gottingen in 1788 to study engineering. Humboldt spent a further year studying mining and mineralogy at the School of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony.
After leaving school, Humboldt obtained a job in the Prussian government’s Mining Department. He worked in the gold and copper mines in the Fichtel Mountains. He also began experimenting with stimulation of nerves by electrical and chemical means. Humboldt’s experiments proved that nerves produced a substance that entered the muscle and triggered movement. He continued these physiological studies by investigating the effects of gases and liquids on living animals. The result was the discovery that breathing will stop if the content of carbon dioxide or hydrocarbonic gases in the air exceeds a certain limit. Upon being offered a promotion to director of mining, Humboldt refused the job to travel and conduct research. Always financially well-off, he did not need to work. In 1798, he crossed Spain while taking measurements. Humboldt found both that existing maps of the country were inaccurate and that the interior of Spain forms a high plateau. Humboldt then received permission to travel to the Spanish colonies in Latin America.
Explorer of the Americas
Humboldt is best known for his explorations of Latin America from 1799 to 1804. With his friend, the French physician and botanist Aime Bonpland, Humboldt traversed 5,000 miles of some of the most forbidding, dangerous, and bleakest terrain on Earth. They traveled along the coast of Venezuela. They followed the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers and discovered the only natural canal, the Casiquiare Canal, that connects two major rivers. They explored much of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico by the time their journey stopped. The two men collected plant, animal, and mineral specimens. They discovered the first animal that produced electricity, the electric eel. While attempting to explain the dryness of the interior of Peru, Humboldt measured the temperature and clocked the flow of a cold ocean current that runs along much of the western coast of South America. Called the Peru Current, it is now better known as the Humboldt Current although the explorer was not the first to discover it and he objected to being honored in this fashion. Humboldt did discover the importance of guano (the dried droppings from birds) as a fertilizer and gave his name to one of the producers of guano, the Peruvian or Humboldt Penguin.
Although Humboldt has not received the credit due him, he did achieve great fame in his day. Part of his reputation came from his extensive self-published writings of his travels and discoveries. One of his books, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799-1801, inspired the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Descriptions, figures, reflections, and history are thrown together without any organization in a mix that is both fascinating and wearying. Running out of money, Humboldt became an advisor to the Prussian ruler in 1827. Invited to tour Russia, he described permafrost and recommended that the Russians establish weather stations across the nation. The stations, created by 1835, allowed Humboldt to use data to develop the principle of continentality, the idea that the interiors of continents have more extreme climates due to a lack of moderating influence from the ocean.
He also developed the first isotherm map, containing lines of equal average temperatures. Humboldt spent much of his later life giving public lectures in Berlin and working on a multivolume work, Kosmos, that would summarize everything known about the earth. Before he could complete it, Humboldt died, possibly of a stroke, on May 6, 1859. He is buried in Tegel, Germany.
- Gerard Helferich, Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World (Gotham Books, 2004);
- Kellner, Alexander von Humboldt (Oxford University Press, 1963).