Geographical Heroes: Alexander Von Humboldt

Alexander Von Humboldt stated “Everything is interconnected”. The work of Humboldt has been praised across the globe and is one of the most important scientists and geographers of the 19th Century.

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt’s travels in  South America provided him with material for one of the most ambitious studies of the natural world. In 1799 he obtained permission to explore the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Until then the colonies had only been accessible to Spanish officials and Catholic missionaries and the huge interiors of the southern New World were a scientists paradise of uncharted territory, and unknown species. On a five year expedition, Humboldt and his companion, the French botanist Aime Bonpland covered 6,000 miles by foot, horseback and canoe.

The expedition began in Caracas and took them down the Orinoco River to reach the Amazon. The second stage of the expedition, after a brief stay in Cuba, took them down the Andes from Columbia to Peru. During this journey, Humboldt studied the strong, cold ocean current of South America’s West coast that became known as the Humboldt current (or Peru current). He also made the connection for the first time between mountain sickness, from which they both suffered, and the thinning of oxygen due to altitude.

Humboldt also spent a year exploring Mexico before returning home. For the next 23 years he lived in Paris and processed his findings. Charles Darwin described him as “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.” He is widely respected as one of the founders of modern geography. Alexander von Humboldt’s travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed western science in the nineteenth his most daring experiment in the visual presentation of scientific data. With its great variety and richness of information, the image displays Humboldt’s conception of plant geography and reflects his effort to show the unity, diversity, and interconnectedness of nature.

In South America, Alexander von Humboldt and Bonpland studied the flora, fauna, and topography of the continent. In 1800 von Humboldt mapped over 1700 miles of the Orinoco River. This was followed by a trip to the Andes and a climb of Mt. Chimborazo (in modern Ecuador), then believed to be the tallest mountain in the world. They didn’t make it to the top due to a wall-like cliff but they did climb to over 18,000 feet in elevation. The cross-section he produced of plants on Mt. Chimborazo show Latin plant names at various altitudes. In columns to the right and left of the cross-section, Humboldt presents relevant climatic conditions such as temperature, barometric pressure, etc (seen below from The Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807).

While on the west coast of South America, von Humboldt measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, over the objections of Humboldt himself, is also known as the Humboldt Current.Von Humboldt sailed to Paris in 1804 and wrote thirty volumes about his field studies.

Von Humboldt’s fortunes were ultimately exhausted because of his travels and self-publishing of his reports. In 1827, he returned to Berlin where he obtained a steady income by becoming the King of Prussia’s advisor. Von Humboldt was later 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.

As von Humboldt got older, he 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 human’s effort to describe the earth, astronomy, and earth and human interaction.

A BBC Radio 4 programme on the life and works of Humboldt is available here.

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