Alexander von Humboldt

Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German scientist who made substantial contributions to geography, geology, geophysics, and meteorology. For much of his life he was associated with the Prussian court, ultimately as a scientific adviser of its rulers.

Of German and French Huguenot parentage, Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin on Sept. 14, 1769. His father, an officer in the Prussian army, died early, and Alexander was educated by a private tutor with his brother, Wilhelm. The household was marred by the mother's "cold and aloof" temperament. Alexander never married but derived great happiness from friendships with colleagues and others and also from his brother's friendly household.

Humboldt studied at the universities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Göttingen from 1787 and later went to the School of Mines at Freiburg in Saxony. In 1792 he joined the mining department of the Prussian government, and promotion came swiftly. One observation he made which proved crucial in his later researches was on the magnetic qualities of rocks; he also invented a safety lamp.

Explorations and Scientific Observations

In 1796 Humboldt's mother died, and he became sufficiently wealthy to plan a 5-year period of exploration. He started out in June 1799, after studying various techniques of botanical research, meteorological observation, and height estimation from barometric readings.

With Aimé Boupland, a botanist, Humboldt spent 5 years traveling in South America and Mexico, with visits to Cuba and finally to the United States, returning home in August 1804. The achievement was magnificent, for it included new material on volcanoes and on the structure of the Andes, with a vast array of data on climate and on plant geography. The Personal Narrative of this expedition was published in French in 1814-1819, and an English translation appeared in 1825; among its admiring readers was Charles Darwin. Humboldt was a splendid scientific observer. He saw that excessive tree felling could be followed by soil erosion, eagerly noted the relics of the Inca and Aztec civilizations, and in France carefully worked out the climatic conditions under which vines could be grown.

From 1804 to 1827 Humboldt lived mainly in Paris as a writer and scientist, still following researches into geomagnetism which eventually, in 1838, led to the discovery of the magnetic pole. From 1827 he lived in Berlin and in 1829 spent 9 months in Siberia on a mining survey with some botanical and geological work. In 1830 he became an adviser to the King of Prussia and acquired increasing influence at court.

Humboldt's Asie Centrale appeared in three volumes in Paris in 1843, and the great Kosmos in five volumes in Stuttgart from 1845 to 1862. These works cover a vast range of physical and human phenomena. Caustic in comment, Humboldt was benevolent in disposition, but he was quite unable to manage money. He died on May 6, 1859, in Berlin.

Further Reading on Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt

Charlotte Kellner, Alexander von Humboldt (1963), is a sympathetic study. Gerald R. Crone, Modern Geographers (1951), includes a short treatment. Humboldt's influence on modern geography is discussed in Thomas W. Freeman, A Hundred Years of Geography (1961).

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