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Alexander von Humboldt

Born: 1769, Died 1859

Charles Darwin described Alexander von Humboldt as "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived."

Humboldt is widely respected as one of the founders of modern geography. His travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed western science in the nineteenth century but his scientific contribution is virtually unknown in the English speaking world.

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1769, his father, an army officer, died when he was nine years old. Alexander and his older brother Wilhelm were raised by their mother, and obtained their early education in languages and mathematics from private tutors.

As a young man, Alexander studied at the Freiberg Academy of Mines under the famous geologist A.G. Werner. While studying, he met George Forester, Captain James Cook's scientific illustrator from his second voyage, and they hiked around Europe making notes of their travels and discoveries.

In 1792, at the age of 22, von Humboldt began a job as a government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. It was during this time that he developed his "safe" flame light.

When he was 27, his mother died, leaving him as substantial income from the family estate. The following year, he left government service and began to plan travel the world. He joined forces with Aime Bonpland, a botanist, and travelled to Madrid, where they obtained special permission and passports from King Charles II of Spain to explore South America.

Then began the most significant part of von Humbold't career as a scientist. von Humboldt and Bonpland studied the flora, fauna, and topography of South America, travelling and mapping the Orinoco River, the Andes and the west coast. There, von Humboldt measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, over the objections of Alexander himself, is now known as the Humboldt Current.

In South America and elsewhere, von Humboldt also recorded and reported on magnetic declination. In 1803 they explored Mexico, where von Humboldt was offered (and refused) a position in the Mexican cabinet, and visited Washingron, D.C., where he became good friends with Thomas Jefferson.

Von Humboldt returned to Europe, sailing to Paris in 1804. He stayed in France for 23 years, writing and publishing at his own expense thirty volumes describing his travels and field studies. When his inheritance was exhausted in 1827, he returned to Berlin where he obtained a steady income by giving hugely popular lectures (it is interesting to note the public appetite for science across Europe - Sir Humphrey Davy also gave a popular series of public lectures at the Royal Institution in London) and became an advisor to the King of Prussia.

He was invited to Russia by the tsar, and after exploring the nation and describing discoveries such as permafrost, he recommended that Russia establish weather observatories across the country. The stations were established in 1835 and von Humboldt was able to use the data to develop the principle of "continentality", that the interiors of continents have more extreme climates due to a lack of moderating influence from the ocean. He also developed the first isotherm map, containing lines of equal average temperatures.

In his old age, von Humboldt decided to write everything known about the earth. He called his work Kosmos and the first volume was published in 1845, when he was 76 years old. Kosmos was well written and well received. The first volume, a general overview of the universe, sold out in two months and was promptly translated into many languages. Other volumes focused on such topics as man's effort to describe the earth, astronomy, and earth and human interaction. Humboldt died in 1859 and the fifth and final volume was published in 1862, based on his notes for the work.


Kellner, L. Alexander von Humboldt. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Martin, Geoffrey J. and Preston E. James. All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas.

McIntyre, Loren. "Humboldt's Way," National Geographic September, 1985: 318-350.

Alexander von Humboldt