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Profile of Baron Alexander Von Humboldt

Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521

Issued Weekly from the Office of Public Affairs

Vol. LXIV         Wednesday, November 15, 1978         No. 20, Issue 8


(Note: Newcomers to the campus frequently ask where the University and this area got its name. The following profile - originally excerpted and prepared by the Office of Public Affairs on the occasion of the 200th birth anniversary of the great naturalist and statesman - is therefore reprinted here. So great was von Humboldt's fame and status that rivers, mountains, counties, bays and towns all over the world from Australia to Russia were given placenames in his honor although he himself never visited most of them. He was never in California, though he was a guest at the White House on one occasion following his major explorations in Mexico and South America. Von Humboldt was unquestionably one of the greatest scholars of the 19th century, if not in history, and it is therefore eminently appropriate for an institution of higher learning to bear his distinguished name.)

Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin on September 14, 1769. He died on May 6, 1859, and received a state funeral, being considered as a great representative of the scientific culture of Germany, a foremost naturalist and traveler and the first exponent of the classical period of physical geography and biogeography. With the exception of Napolean Bonaparte, Humboldt was the most famous man in Europe. Academies sought him out. Frederick William III of Prussia gave him a court position and offered him the appointnment of Prussian minister of public instruction, which Humboldt refused. He frequently accompanied the king of Prussia and allied sovereigns to different congresses and visits to London and European capitals.

Humboldt was the son of a Prussian nobleman. He attended the University of Gottingen and the Mining Academy of Freiburg. As a student, he came in contact with a man by the name of Georg Forster who had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage of discovery. Forster had a great influence on young Humboldt and awakened in him his lifelong, romantic interest in the tropics as well as a strong, liberal, humanitarian idealism.

His first researches were into the subterranean vegetation of the mines of Freiburg (published in 1793). He was appointed assessor of mines and, subsequently, director of mines in the Prussian principality of Bayreuth (Franconia) where he continued his research (discovering the local magnetic declination of rocks) and also became active in social reform, founding a school of mines and working to improve the miner's conditions. As a result of his work, he was entrusted with his first diplomatic mission, traveling to the salt-mining regions of Bavaria, Austria and Galicia and into northern Italy and Switzerland where, among others, he became acquainted with Volta and de Saussure.

Becoming interested in Galvani's discovery of muscular irritability, Humboldt carried out extensive experiments upon himself, the results of which were published in 1797. In this paper, he set forth his ideas in the form of practical chemistry rather than as speculative considerations. As a member of the Weimar coterie, he had an opportunity at this period in his life to discuss with the participants fundamental problems of science and natural philosophy with his own basic assumptions turning toward empiricism.

In 1796 he began to travel extensively. An original intent to join Napolean in Egypt became diverted into Spain where an unexpected friendship with the prime minister led him and his botanist companion Aime Bonpland to explore Spanish America.

In 1799 they sailed in the "Pizarro" from La Coruna, stopping enroute at Tenerife where, on the night of November 11-12, Humboldt observed a meteor shower which forms the starting point of modern knowledge of the periodicity of the phenomenon. From Tenerife they proceeded to Caracas, and, in 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland began to explore the course of the great Orinoco river. In four months, Humboldt discovered some 1,725 miles of the wildest kind of country and confirmed the existence of a link between the drainage of the Orinoco and the Amazon and studied the plant and animal life of the savannas and rain forests. In November of 1800, the two men visited Cuba and early in 1801 went back to South America. They made a long and very difficult journey from Colombia to Peru along the Cordilleras range, conducting extensive studies as they went. During the course of this trip they ascended Mt. Chimborazo to a height of 18,893 feet which at that time was a world record for mountain climbing.

At Callao, the seaport for Lima, in Peru, Humboldt measured the temperatures of the mightly ocean current off the west coast of South America which came to bear his name. During this expedition, he also observed the transit of Mercury and made investigations into the properties of guano that led ultimately to the export of guano to Europe.

Humboldt and Bonpland then turned north to Mexico where they spent a year. Following a short visit to the United States, the pair returned to Europe in 1804.

Following a sojourn of two and one-half years in Berlin, where he wrote his "Ansichten der Natur," Humboldt moved to Paris in 1808 to secure the scientific cooperation he needed for the arrangement of the vast quantities of the materials he had collected on his travels. This was a colossal task which was to occupy him and his collaborators for 21 years and even then it remained incomplete.

During Humboldt's travels in tropical America he had laid the foundation of physical geography and geophysics. He had used scientific instruments for a continous survey in orography, meteorology and earth magnetism and had studied plant life in its environmental conditions, collecting about 60,000 specimens, thousands of which were new species and genera.

Much of his influence on science came from his graphic records of his work. His delineation of isothermal lines (done in 1817) suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climactic conditions of various countries. He was the first to investigate the rate of decrease in mean temperature with increase of elevation above sea level and by his inquireies into the origin of tropical storms afforded the earlies clues to the detection of the more complicated laws governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes. He also introduced the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. A publication of his in 1806 was the beginning of the concept of post-Darwinian biogreography.

Humboldt's discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth's magnetic force from the poles to the equator was received by the Paris Institute in 1804. His services to geology were based on his study of the volcanoes of the new world. He demonstrated that they fell naturally in linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures, and by his demonstration of the igneous formation of rocks corrected many errors in thought. He formed extensive theories on magnetism, volcanicity, seismology and tectonics.

His labors and travels were so extensive that he exhausted his considerable fortune and was forced to accept, regretfully, an offer of the salaried post of chamberlain and so returned in 1827 to his birthplace. From 1805 to 1834 he was engaged in the editing and the publication of his major work, the 30 volume edition of "Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland." His other great work, the "Kosmos" began to take shape in his public lectures in 1827-29 when he was at the height of his powers. The idea of the "Kosmos" was to convey not only a graphic discription of the physical world but an imaginative concept as well.

In 1829, Humboldt accepted an invitation from the tsar of Russia to go to central Asia. He spent two years traveling to Russia as far as the Chinese border and back by the Caspian Sea. The most important results of this extensive tour were the completion of meteorological data for the isothermal world map, a theory of the orographic configuration of the central Asiatic mountain systems and tablelands, and the discovery of diamonds in the gold mines of the Urals.

His request to the Russian government in 1829 led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia and a similar appeal to the duke of Sussex who, at the time, (1836), was president of the Royal Society, secured for the undertaking the wide basis of the British dominions. Thus, Humboldt established the forerunner of modern scientific cooperation between the nations of the world.

After 1830, Humboldt became involved in court affairs and diplomatic missions because of his position as king's chamberlain. His influence on educational and scientific affairs continued to be important. His social consciousness led him to constantly rail against bigotry without religion, aestheticism without culture and philosophy without common sense. In a period when all sciences tended toward specialization, Humboldt trended toward universalism, working on his "Kosmos." The first two volumes of this work were published in 1845 and 1847, the third and fourth between 1850 and 1858 and for the fifth, which was published posthumously in 1862, he did not cease work until his 90th year, a few weeks before his death.

He was keenly interested in economic and political problems of nations in addition to his scientific interests. In two of his monographs, he analyzed for the first time on the basis of detailed statistics the economic structure of Mexico and Cuba, a plantation colony shadowed by inhuman slavery which Humboldt detested and openly opposed with practical ideas for its abolition. The influence Humboldt exerted on the young Simon Bolivar in Paris gave him a high reputation in Latin America as promoter of the liberation from colonialism. Humboldt's elder brother, Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, was also a noted diplomat and man of letters specializing in philology and producing early work of significance in the character and structure of language.