Alexander von Humboldt (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Humboldt, a native of Germany, undertook a famous four-year expedition to the Americas. The outcome of this expedition was the new sciences of geography, plant geography, and meteorology. Humboldt insisted on seeing a geographical site as a whole including climate, elevation, and distribution of plants, animals, and natural resources. He was one of the founders of modern science and scientific methods.
The Humboldt family was, at the time of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth, not part of the ancient Prussian nobility. The title had only been in the family a few generations. Alexander’s father, Major Alexander George von Humboldt, had fought in the Seven Years’ War in the Prussian army and later became adjutant to the Duke of Braunschweig. Because he was not of the ancient Prussian elite, Major Humboldt decided that his sons would not become military men, but scientists and politicians.
Alexander was the younger of two brothers, both destined to become famous scholars—albeit in different fields. His other brother, Wilhelm, was early perceived to be the one with scholastic aptitude, whereas Alexander did not seem very interested in academic pursuits. He liked nature and spent much of his childhood in the parks surrounding his childhood home, Schloss Tegel, near Berlin. He also showed early talent for map drawing and reading, and for drawing nature.
The two brothers...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)
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Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859) (World of Earth Science)
German explorer and naturalist
Alexander Humboldt pursued a lifetime of exploration and discovery, and was best known for his expeditions to Central and South America. A master of observation and analysis, Humboldt was also a prolific writer and recorder of his observed scientific data.
Humboldt was born in Berlin, the son of a Prussian army officer and a Huguenot (French Protestant) mother. He experienced poor health as a child and was unimpressive as a student. He was raised under his mother's strict Calvinistic beliefs and remained unmarried throughout his life.
Perhaps his most notable accomplishment was his five-year expedition to South and Central America made from 1799 to 1804. Spain had been preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth and conquest in its American colonies, and it was rare for a learned individual like Humboldt to gain permission to visit these areas. Once there, his perseverance took him to the edges of human endurance.
South America was a largely unknown land, and much of what Humboldt observed was new knowledge. Traveling by foot and canoe, he discovered a connection between the Orinoco and Amazon River systems. He climbed volcanoes in Ecuador and observed how they were positioned in a line, as though following a flaw in the earth's crust. He collected thousands of plant specimens. He observed ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean including one, now called the Peru Current, which was also named after him. No matter where his location or surroundings, Humboldt tirelessly recorded his observations. This proved to be Humboldt's greatest legacy.
Humboldt resided in Paris from 1805 to 1827, enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle that allowed him to associate with many of his fellow professionals. He published more than 30 volumes of his data during this time, proving his excellence as a writer and artist.
Humboldt spent his later years in Berlin, where he had become a notable figure. At the invitation of the Russian government, he traveled for three months in the Urals and Siberia, and brought with him his knowledge of mining techniques. The ceremonial trappings of this visit only interfered with his ability to observe the region.
Humboldt died while working on the fifth volume of his book Kosmos. This work was his attempt to give a unified explanation of all existence, and gathered most of the available scientific knowledge of the time. During his life, Humboldt had been a meteorologist, botanist, geologist, geographer, and oceanographer.
See also Cosmology; Ocean circulation and currents