When Charles Darwin set out for South America, he was inspired in a large part by the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, whose writing style he actually imitated. Born in Berlin in 1769, Humboldt entered the world in fairly illustrious circumstances; the future king of Prussia was his godfather. But Humboldt's own father died when the boy was only nine, and while Alexander and his brother Wilhelm were always close, their mother was exacting. Trying to please her, Alexander studied at the universities of Frankfurt and Göttingen, and at the mining academy of Freiburg in Saxony. He was a student of Abraham Gottlob Werner, but eventually rejected parts of Werner's Neptunism, realizing that movements of rock and volcanism created mountains.
After his mother died, Humboldt felt free to do what he wanted, namely to travel. In the late 1790s, he planned to visit North Africa. After learning how dangerous his planned trip might prove to be, he instead went to Madrid where obtained royal permission to visit Spain's colonies in the New World. From 1799 to 1804, Humboldt explored South America, collecting plants and measuring temperature, air pressure, and the Earth's magnetic field. In the 1820s, he was invited by the Czar to explore Russia, and he expanded his trip into Siberia, to compare its conditions with those of South America. After the trip, he suggested setting up geomagnetic observation stations, and his idea was implemented, with stations scattered across Eurasia and America.
Humboldt was convinced that mechanical and chemical forces worked together in perfect harmony to sustain nature, but he wanted to identify those forces. He combined studies of magnetism, meteorology, ocean tides, zoology, botany, atmospheric chemistry, mineralogy, geology and topography. In one particularly ingenious set of experiments, he interspersed animal muscle tissue with metals and examined the muscle contractions produced by electrical currents. He then tested only nerve and muscle tissue, without any metals, and found they could also generate electrical currents. Humboldt concluded that electrical currents could have a source within living bodies, probably from the brain and nerves. Another of Humboldt's experiments with electricity was more disturbing. To acquire electric eels for experimentation, he and some assistants herded about 30 horses into an eel-infested lake, trapping the horses there to be shocked repeatedly until the agitated eels exhausted themselves and posed little danger to the humans. Two agonized horses drowned in the first five minutes. They were vindicated somewhat when a not-quite-exhausted eel later shocked Humboldt. In fact, Humboldt willingly subjected his own body to painful electrical experiments, including gripping an eel in one hand and a piece of metal in the other to magnify the electric charge. In South America, he sampled river water, perhaps the source of the dysentery he suffered in the Amazon.
Humboldt championed the development of topographic maps, which indicate the height as well as spatial distribution of landforms. He also pioneered the calculation of mean elevation of continents, and realized that mountain chains have less impact on the mean elevation of large landmasses than the elevated plains of the typical land surfaces. Much of what motivated these detailed studies was his recognition that altitude affects climate and vegetation. He pioneered vegetation maps and developed the concept of the isotherm, linking areas with similar temperatures on maps. In another instance of astute reasoning, he attributed the dropping water level in Lake Valencia to climate change caused by deforestation. The ecologically minded traveler also noted how the Mauritia palm tree provided shelter to some animals and food to others, something later known as a "keystone species" crucial to ecosystem health.
Had Humboldt realized what lay in store for him, he might not have wanted to visit South America any more than Africa. On three separate occasions, newspapers reported him dead. On the Amazon, he contended with mosquitoes so thick they filled his mouth and nose whenever he uncovered his face. The fevers he suffered in the insects' wake were even worse. On the slopes of Chimborazo, his nose streamed with blood from the high altitude, yet the trek made him famous, even if he didn't reach the summit. At the time, Chimborazo was believed to be not only the tallest peak in the Andes but also the world. In 1802, Humboldt and his climbing companions reached an altitude of 19,286 feet — higher than anyone else had ventured before. Undaunted by hardship in South America, he hiked until his shoes wore out then continued barefoot. When he contracted lice, he scrutinized them through a microscope.
En route home, Humboldt briefly visited the United States. The belief in American degeneracy — that a colder, wetter climate stunted New World inhabitants — remained fairly widespread when Humboldt visited South America. His rejection of the idea and his discovery of mammoth teeth in the Andes endeared the young naturalist to then-president Thomas Jefferson, and the two remained lifelong friends.
After five years of traveling in the Americas, Humboldt spent 22 years writing 30 volumes about his experiences. He drove himself as hard as a writer as he had as a traveler, exhausting his own financial resources and those of three publishers. For all his contributions to natural sciences, his writings on the political and economic conditions of Mexico may have brought him more fame. Humboldt was variously considered a Romantic, a product of the Enlightenment and a radical. His last great work, Kosmos, discussed the history of science and examined the effects of artistic perceptions on human interpretation of nature. Humboldt lived, traveled and wrote at a time when many people of European descent believed that the Earth was theirs to conquer, control and "reclaim" from nonwhites. He advanced a different view.
Science of the early 19th century has often been described as "Baconian" but in 1978, American science historian Susan Faye Cannon adopted the term "Humboldtian" to acknowledge the profound impact Humboldt had on early Victorian science. Far from simple collections of encyclopedic facts, Humboldtian science used the latest instrumentation to examine relationships between measurement, mathematical laws, and possible sources of error.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated October 21, 2015