Alexander von Humboldt
September 14, 2008
Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin 239 years ago today. During his childhood he was often ill and in school he was not a good student and seldom applied himself to his schoolwork. To no one's surprise, he failed to complete his studies of economics. Instead, he picked up an obsessive interest in plants and rocks. He enrolled in an intensive course at a prestigious mining college, but he quit before finishing his degree. He was 23 years old and he wanted to be an explorer! Two years later Alexander inherited the family fortune and decided to spend it on a trip with a friend, Aimé Bonpland, to one of the most remote and unknown parts of the world.
After five years in Central and South America, over 6,000 miles (9,650 kilometers) of mountains, swamps, mosquitoes, sickness, fevers, lack of oxygen, snakebite and worse, Humboldt and Bonpland returned from an exploring and collecting journey that makes Indiana Jones look like a Boy Scout at a Jamboree! Not the least of Humboldt's achievements was a record-breaking hike up Chimborazo, at that time believed to be the highest mountain in the world, to a height of 19,286 feet (5,878 meters) just short of the summit, unassisted by any modern climbing equipment. Throughout the entire journey, he measured Earth's geomagnetic field, gathered meteorological data, took daily temperature and pressure readings and collected a huge number of samples to show how a region's plant and animal life related to its geography. When he returned to Europe Humboldt was 35 years old, barely 1/3 of the way through his life!
He spent the next 23 years in Paris working on his collection and publishing his findings. Then his money finally ran out and he returned to Berlin and took a job teaching physical geography at the University of Berlin. In 1829, he went on a very different style of trip at the Tsar's invitation to gather scientific information in Siberia. For the last 25 years of his life, Humboldt worked on writing his multi-volume description of the known universe, "Kosmos". He lived to see the first four volumes through the presses.
When he died in Berlin on May 6, 1859, the 90-year-old Alexander von Humboldt was unquestionably the world's foremost natural scientist. He was far ahead of his time with his unified method of looking at the Earth's systems. This is evident in the illustration above in which was a popular reprint of a drawing by Humboldt in which he shows the physical geography of Chimborazo. For a detailed look at Humboldt's original, updated to take advantage of computer technology, check this link.