Alexander von Humboldt felicitously combined acute observation and scientific method with indefatigable energy levels and enormous curiosity. The Age of Humboldt, as some called it, was an age in which scientific method first conquered speculation and the world became a single world where the same processes, physical and human, could be thought to apply everywhere. Born September 14,1769 in Berlin, the son of a Prussian officer and a Huguenot mother (whose family left France in 1685), Humboldt studied at various universities (Frankfurt, Berlin, and Gottingen), where he became interested in geology and botany. In 1790, he enrolled in the Mining School in Freiberg and then took a job in the Prussian government’s department of mines (1792). In 1796, his mother died and he came into an inheritance worth about £17,000, which provided an annual income of about £700— vastly higher than his income as a government functionary of £80 per year. This inheritance helped subvention his travels and publications until it was finally exhausted around 1827. Humboldt lived in Paris during many of his most productive years where he had a close friendship with physicist François Arago, but he also often resided in Berlin, where he died on May 6,1859.
Humboldt traveled widely in Europe as well as the Americas (Central and South: 1799-1804) and Central Asia (1827). He was able to both write prodigiously about what he saw and to formulate fruitful generalizations that became the starting points for later disciplines, including physical geography, landscape ecology, climatology, and even vulcanology. He was the first to establish the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks and to suggest that volcanoes were linked to fault lines. He devoted hours taking measurements, which he assiduously turned into statistics that he related to botanical and geological observations. Humboldt had a genius for graphical representation and was the first to introduce the depiction of isoclines and similar graphics using his many individual data points for magnetic readings, temperature, or barometric pressure.
Humboldt’s observations tended to be acute: The Peru Current was originally named the Humboldt Current since he was the first to record its consistently colder temperatures. His observations that the limestone in Jura (Italy) obviously represented a distinct geological period led him to coin the term “jurassic,” and his claim that South American savannas had a climatic origin is still a matter of theoretical interest. While authorities recognize some examples of anthropogenic influence, they tend to view Humboldt as correct in many other cases. His careful observations of traditional American peoples and civilizations even led him to hypothesize and provide substantial evidence for an origin across the Bering Strait from Siberia (1810) in contrast to the many speculative theories that then prevailed. Nevertheless, while he strongly promoted the career of Louis Agassiz, he still found it difficult to believe Agassiz’s theories of earlier ice ages, and his spotty education prevented him from fully understanding the mathematics behind Gauss’s model of earth’s magnetism.
Humboldt was perhaps most unique in his energetic devotion to a scientific methodology in which hypotheses were assiduously exposed to all supporting and countervailing evidence and plausible conclusions reached only after evaluation of both. His enormous influence in his time was equally due to his prolific travel, acute observation, insightful generalization, and his ability to network with other scholars and governments. Humboldt was generous with his time and money, and though he died quite poor, his personal correspondence always involved a vast international network of scholars.
- Kellner, L. (1963). Alexander von Humboldt. London: Oxford University Press.
- von Humboldt, A. (1810). Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’amérique. Paris: F. Schoell.
- von Humboldt, A. (1850-1859). Cosmos: A sketch of a physical description of the universe. New York: Harper & Brothers.
- von Humboldt, A. (1988). Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. (Original work published 1811)
- von Humboldt, A. (1971). Researches concerning the institutions and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of America. New York: Da Capo Press. (Original work published 1814)
- von Humboldt, A., & Bonpland, A. (1818-1829). Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America, during the years 1799-1804 (Vols. 1-7). London: Longman, Hurst.