1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt
(full name: Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt)
German naturalist and traveller

FRIEDRICH HEINRICH ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT (Baron von Humboldt) (1769-1859), a distinguished naturalist and traveler, was born at Berlin, September 14, 1769.

His father, who was a major in the Prussian army, belonged to a Pomeranian family of consideration, and was rewarded for his services during the Seven Years’ War with the post of royal chamberlain. He married in 1766 Maria Elizabeth von Colomb, widow of Baron von Hollwede, and had by her two sons, of whom the younger is the subject of this notice.

Alexander von Humboldt (image)

Alexander von Humboldt

Detail from a painting by Jospeh Stieler. Date: 1843.

The childhood of Alexander von Humboldt was not a promising one, as regards either health or intellect. His characteristic tastes, however, soon displayed themselves; and from his fancy for collecting and labeling plants, shells, and insects he received the playful title of "the little apothecary". The care of his education, on the unexpected death of his father in 1779, devolved upon his mother, who discharged the trust with constancy and judgment.

Destined for a political career, he studied finance during six months at the university of Frankfort-on-the-Oder; and a year later, April 25, 1789, he matriculated at Göttingen, then eminent for the lectures of Heyne and Blumenbach. His vast and varied powers were by this time fully developed; and during the vacation of 1789 he gave a fair earnest of his future performance in a scientific excursion up the Rhine, and in the treatise issuing, Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Brunswick, 1790).

His native passion for distant travel was confirmed by the friendship formed by him at Göttingen with George Forster, Heyne’s son-in-law, the distinguished companion of Cook’s second voyage. Henceforth his studies, which his rare combination of parts enabled him to render at once multifarious, rapid, and profound, were directed with extraordinary insight and perseverance to the purpose of preparing himself for his distinctive calling as a scientific explorer. With this view he studied commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, geology at Freiberg, under Werner, anatony at Jena under Loder, astronomy and the use of scientific instruments under Zach and Köhler. His researches into the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg led to the publication in 1793 of his Florae Fribergensis Specimen; and the results of a prolonged course of experiments on the phenomena of muscular irritability, then recently discovered by Galvani, were contained in his Versuche über die gereizte Muskel-und Nervenfaser (Berlin, 1797), enriched in the French translation with notes by Blumenbach.

In 1794 he was admitted to the intimacy of the famous Weimar coterie, and contributed (June 1795) to Schiller’s new periodical, Die Horen, a philosophical allegory entitled Die Lebenskraft, oder der vhodische Genius. In the summer of 1790 he paid a flying visit to England in company with Forster. In 1792 and 1797 he was in Vienna; in 1795 he made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy. He had obtained in the meantime official employment, having been appointed assessor of mines at Berlin, February 29, 1792. Although the service of the state was consistently regarded by him but as an apprenticeship to the service of science, he fulfilled its duties with such conspicuous ability that he not only rapidly rose to the highest post in his department, but was besides entrusted with several important diplomatic missions.

The death of his mother, November 19, 1796, set him free to follow the bent of his genius, and, finally severing his official connexions, he waited for an opportunity of executing him long-cherished schemes of travel. On the postponement of Captain Baudin’s proposed voyage of circumnavigation, which he had been officially invited to accompany, he left Paris for Marseilles with Bonpland, the designated botanist of the frustrated expedition, hoping to join Bonaparte in Egypt. The means of transport, however, were not forthcoming, and the two travellers eventually found their way to Madrid, where the unexpected patronage of the minister d’Urquijo determined them to make Spanish America the scene of their explorations.

Armed with powerful recommendations, they sailed in the "Pizarro" from Corunna, June 5, 1799, stopped six days at Teneriffe for the ascent of the Peak, and landed, July 16, at Cumana. There Humboldt observed, on the night of the 12-13th of November, that remarkable meteor-shower which forms the starting-point of our acquaintance with the periodicity of the phenomenon; thence he proceeded with Bonpland to Caracas; and in February 1800 he left the coast for the purpose of exploring the course of the Orinoco. This trip, which lasted four months, and covered 1725 miles of wild and uninhabited country, had the important result of establishing the existence of a communication between the water-systems of the Orinoco and Amazon, and of determining the exact position of the bifurcation. On the 24th of November the two friends set sail for Cuba, and after a stay of some months regained the mainland at Cartagena. Ascending the swollen stream of the Magdalena, and crossing the frozen ridges of the Cordilleras, they reached Quito after a tedious and difficulty journey, January 6, 1802. Their stay there was signalized by the ascent of Pichincha and Chimborazo, and terminated in an expedition to the sources of the Amazon en route for Lima. At Callao Humboldt observed the transit of Mercury on November 9, and studied the fertilizing properties of guano, the introduction of which into Europe was mainly due to his writings. A tempestuous sea-voyage brought them to the shores of Mexico, and after a year’s residence in the province, followed by a short visit to the United States, they set sail for Europe from the mouth of the Delaware, and landed at Bordeaux, August 3, 1804.

Humboldt may justly be regarded as having in this memorable expedition laid the foundation of sciences of physical geography and meteorology in their larger bearings, By his delineation (in 1817) of "isothermal lines", he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries. He first investigated the rate of decrease in mean temperature with increase of elevation above the sea-level, and afforded, by his investigations into the origin of tropical storms, the earliest clue to the detection of the more complicated law governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes; while his essay on the geography of plants was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. His discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth’s magnetic force from the poles to the equator was communicated to the Paris Institute in a memoir read by him, December 7, 1804, and its importance was attested by the speedy emergence of rival claims. His services to geology were mainly based on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the New World. He showed that they fell naturally into linear fissures; and by his demonstration of the igneous origin of rocks hitherto held to be of acqueous formation, he contributed largely to the spread of juster views than those the prevailing.

The reduction into form and publication of the encyclopaedic mass of materials -- scientific, political, and archaeological -- collected by him during his absence from Europe was now Humboldt’s most urgent desire. After a short trip to Italy with Gay-Lussac for the purpose of investigating the law of magnetic declination, and a sojourn of two years and a half in his native city, he finally, in the spring of 1808, settled in Paris with the view of securing the scientific co-operation required for bringing his great work through the press. This colossal task, which he at first hopes would have occupied but two years, eventually cost him twenty-one, and even then remained incomplete. With the exception of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was now the most famous man in Europe. A chorus of applause greeted him from every side. Academies, both native and foreign, were eager to enroll him among their members. Frederick William III, of Prussia conferred upon him the honour, without exacting the duties, attached to the post of royal chamberlain, together with a pension of 2500 thalers, afterwards doubled. He refused the appointment of Prussian minister of public instruction in 1810. In 1814 he accompanied the allied sovereigns to London. Three years later he was summoned by the king of Prussia to attend him at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. Again in the autumn of 1822 he accompanied the same monarch to the congress of Verona, proceeded thence with the royal party to Rome and Naples, and returned to Paris in the spring of 1823.

The French capital he had long regarded as his true home. There he found, not only scientific sympathy, but the social stimulus which his vigorous and healthy mind eagerly craved. He was equally in his element as the lion of the salons and as the savant of the institute and the observatory. Thus, when at last he received from his sovereign a summons to join his court at Berlin, he obeyed indeed, but with deep and lasting regret. The provincialism of his native city was odious to him. He never ceased to rail against the bigotry without religion, aestheticism without culture, and philosophy without common sense, which culture, and philosophy without common sense, which he found dominant on the banks of the Spree. The unremitting benefits and sincere attachment of two well-meaning princes secured indeed his gratitude, but could not appease his discontent. At first he sought relief form the "nebulous atmosphere" of his new abode by frequent visits to Paris; but as years advanced his excursions were reduced to accompanying the monotonous "oscillations" of the court between Potsdam and Berlin. On the 12th of May 1827 he settled permanently in the Prussian capital, where his first efforts were directed towards the furtherance of the science of terrestrial magnetism. For many years it had been one his favourite schemes to secure by means of simultaneous observations at distant points, a thorough investigation of the nature and law of "magnetic storms" -- a term invented by him to designate abnormal disturbances of the earth’s magnetism. The meeting at Berlin, September 18, 1828, of a newly-formed scientific association, of which he was elected president, gave him the opportunity of setting on foot an extensive system of research in combination with his diligent personal observations. His appeal to the Russian Government in 1829 led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia; while his letter to the duke of Sussex, then (April 1836) president of the Royal Society, secured for the undertaking the wide basis of the British dominions. Thus that scientific conspiracy of nations which is one of the noblest fruits of modern civilization was by his exertions first successfully organized. In 1811, and again in 1818, projects of Asiatic exploration were proposed to Humboldt, first by the Russian, and afterwards by the Prussian Government; but on each occasion untoward circumstances interposed, and it was not until he had entered upon his sixtieth year that he resumed his early role of a traveller in the interests of science. Between May and November 1829 he, together with his chosen associated Gustav Rose and Ehrenberg, traversed the wide expanse of the Russian empire form the Neva to Yenesei, accomplishing in twenty-five weeks a distance of 9614 miles. The journey, however, though carried out with all the advantages afforded by the immediate patronage of the Russian Government, was too rapid to be profitable. Its most important fruits were the correction of the prevalent exaggerated estimate of the height of the Central-Asian plateau, and the discovery of diamonds in the gold-washings of the Ural -- a result which Humboldt’s Brazilian experiences enables him to predict, and by predicting to secure.

Between 1830 and 1848 Humboldt was frequently employed in diplomatic missions to the court of Louis Philippe, with whom he always maintained the most cordial personal relations. The death of his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who expired in his arms, April 8, 1836, saddened the later years of his life. In losing him, Alexander lamented that he had "lost half himself." The accession of the crown prince as Frederick William IV., on the death of his father, in June 1840, added to rather the detracted from his court favour. Indeed, the new king’s craving for his society became at times so importunate as to leave him only some hours snatched from sleep for the prosecution of his literary labours.

It is not often that a man postpones to his seventy-sixth year, and then successdully executed, the crowning task of his life. Yet this was Humboldt’s case. The first two volumes of the Kosmos were published, and in the main composed, between the years 1845 and 1847. The idea of a work which should convey, not only a graphic description, but an imaginative conception of the physical world -- which should support generalization by details, and dignity details by generalization, had floated before his mind for upwards of half a century. It first took definite shape in a set of lectures derived by him before the university of Berlin in the winter of 1827-28. These lectures formed, as his latest biographer expresses it, "the cartoon for the great fresco of the Kosmos." The scope of this remarkable work may be briefly described as the representation of the unity amid the complexity of nature. In it the large and vague ideals of the 18th are sought to be combined with the exact scientific requirements of the 19th century. And, in spite of inevitable shortcomings, the attempt was in an eminent degree successful. Nevertheless, the general effect of the books is rendered to some extent unsatisfactory by its tendency to substitute the indefinite for the infinite, and thus to ignore, while it does not deny, the existence of a power outside and beyond those of nature. A certain heaviness of style, too, and laborious picturesquences of treatment make it more imposing than attractive to the general reader. Its supreme and abiding value, however, consists in its faithful reflexion of the mind of a great man. No higher eulogium can be passed on Alexander von Humboldt than that, in attempting, and not unworthily attempting, to portray the universe, he succeeded still more perfectly in portraying his own comprehensive intelligence.

The last decade of his long life -- his "improbable" years, as he was accustomed to call them -- was devoted to the continuation of this work, of which the third and fourth volumes were published in 1850-58, and a fragment of a fifth appeared posthumously in 1862. In these he sought to fill up what was wanting of detail as to individual branches of science in the sweeping survey contained in the first volume. Notwithstanding their high separate value, it must be admitted that, from an artistic point of view, these additions were deformities. The characteristic idea of the work, so far as such a gigantic idea admitted of literary incorporation, was completely developed in its opening portions, and the attempt to convert it into a scientific encyclopedia was in truth to nullify its generating motive. Humboldt’s remarkable industry and accuracy were never more conspicuous than in the erection of this latest trophy to his genius. Nor did he rely entirely on his own labours. He owed much of what he accomplished to his rare power of assimilating the thoughts and availing himself of the co-operation of others. He was not more ready to incur than to acknowledge obligations. The notes to Kosmos overflow with laudatory citations, which were, indeed, the current coin in which he discharged his intellectual debts.

On the 24th of February 1857 Humboldt was attacked with a slight apoplectic stroke, which, however, passed away without leaving any perceptible trace. It was not until the winter of 1858-59 that his strength began to decline, and on the ensuing 6th of May he tranquilly expired, wanting but six months of competing his ninetieth year. The honours which had been showered on him during life followed him after death. His remains, previously to being interred in the family resting-place at Tegel, were conveyed in state through the streets of Berlin, and received by the prince-regent with uncovered head at the door of the cathedral. The first centenary of his birth was celebrated September 14, 1869, with equal enthusiasm in the New as in the Old World; and the numerous monuments erected in his honour, and newly-explored regions called by his name, bear witness to the universal diffusion of his fame and popularity.

Humboldt was never married, and seems to have been at all times more social than domestic in his tastes. To his brother’s family he was, however, much attached; and in his later years the somewhat arbitrary say of an old and faithful servant held him in more than matrimonial bondage. By a singular example of weakness, he executed, four years before his death, a deed of gift transferring to this man Seifert the absolute possession of his entire property. It is right to add that no undue advantage appears to have been taken of this extraordinary concession. Of the qualities of his heart it is less easy to speak than of those of his head. The clue to his inner life might probably be found in a certain egotism of self-culture which influenced his affections as well as regulated his studies. His attachments, however, once formed, were sincere and lasting. He made innumerable friends; and it does nor stand on record that he ever lost one. His benevolence was throughout his life active and disinterested. His early zeal for the improvement of the condition of the miners in Galicia and Franconia, his consistent detestation of slavery, his earnest patronage of rising men of science bear witness to the large humanity which formed the ground-work of his character. The faults of his old age have been brought into undue prominence by the injudicious publication of his letters to Varnhagen von Ense. The chief of these was his habit of smooth speaking, almost amounting to flattery, which formed a painful contrast with the caustic sarcasm of his confidential utterances. His vanity, at all times conspicuous, was tempted by his sense of humour, and was so frankly avowed as to invite sympathy rather than provoke ridicule. After every deduction has been made, he yet stands before us as a colossal figure, not unworthy to take his place beside Goethe as the representative of the scientific side of the culture of his country.

The best biography of Humboldt is that of Professor Karl Bruhns (3 vols. 8vo, Leipsic, 1972), excellently translated into English by the Misses Lasses, with the omission, however, of the exhaustive bibliographical notice and scientific summary contained in the original. The Voyage aux regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait 1799-1804, par Alexandre de Humboldt Aime Bonpland, (Paris, 1807, &c.), consisted of thirty folio and quarto volumes, and comprises a considerable number of subordinate but important works. Among these may be enumerated Vue des Cordilleres et monuments des peoples indigens de l’Amerique, 2 vols. folio, 1810; Examen critique de l’histoire de la geograpgie du Nouveau Continent, 1814-34; Atlas géographique et physique du royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne, 1811; Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1805 (now very rare); and Relation historique, 1814-25, an unfinished narrative of his travels, including the Essai politique sur l’ile de Cuba. The Nova genera et species plantarum (7 vols. folio, 1815-25), containing descriptions of above 4500 species of plants collected by Humboldt and Bonpland, was mainly complied by C.S. Kunth; Oltmanns assisted in preparing the Recueil d’observations astronomiques, 1808; Cuvier, Latreille, Valenciennes, and Gay-Lussac co-operated in the Recueil d’observations de zoologie et d’anatomie comparée, 1805-33. Humboldt’s Ansichten der Natur (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1808) went through three editions in his lifetime, and was translated into nearly every European language. The results of his Asiatic journey were published in Fragments de géologie et de climatologie asiatiques, (2 vol. 8vo, 1831), and in Asie centrale (3 vols. 8vo, 1843) – an enlargement of the earlier work. The memoirs and papers read by him before scientific societies, or contributed by him to scientific periodicals, are too numerous for specifiication.

Since his death considerable portions of his correspondence have been made public. The first of these, in order both of time and of importance, is his Briefe an Varnhagen von Ense, Leipsic, 1860. This was followed in rapid succession by Briefwechsel mit einem jungen Freunde (Friedrich Althaus), Berlin, 1861; Briefwechsel mit Heinrich Berghaus, 3 vols., Jena, 1863; Correspondance scientifique et littetaraire, 2 vols., Paris, 1865-69; Lettres á Marc-Aug. Pictet, published in Le Globe, tome vii., Geneva, 1868; Briefe an Bunsen, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1869; Briefe an seinen Bruder Wilhelm, Stuttgart, 1880; besides some other collections of less note. An octavo edition of Humboldt’s principal works was published in Paris by Th. Morgand, 1864-66. (A. M. C.)

The article above was written by Miss Agnes M. Clerke; made astronomical observations at the Cape of Good Hope, 1888; gained the Actonian Prize for her works on astronomy, 1893; author of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century and Problems in Astrophysics.

Some Quotations from Aleander von Humboldt

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion. These special departments in the great domain of natural science are, moreover, capable of being reciprocally fructified by means of the appropriative forces by which they are endowed.
-- Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos (1845-47)

While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more enobled by mental cultivation than others, but none in themselves nobler than others. All are in like degree designed for freedom; a freedom which, in the ruder conditions of society, belongs only to the individual, but which, in social states enjoying political institutions, appertains as a right to the whole body of the community.
-- Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos (1845-47)

From the remotest nebulæ and from the revolving double stars, we have descended to the minutest organisms of animal creation, whether manifested in the depths of ocean or on the surface of our globe, and to the delicate vegetable germs which clothe the naked declivity of the ice-crowned mountain summit; and here we have been able to arrange these phenomena according to partially known laws; but other laws of a more mysterious nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world, in which is comprised the human species in all its varied conformation, its creative intellectual power, and the languages to which it has given existence. A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.
-- Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos (1845-47)

Share this page:

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries