Alexander von Humboldt
Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, also known as the Chimborazo Map
Humboldt’s depiction of the volcanoes Chimborazo and Cotopaxi in cross section, with detailed information about plant geography. The illustration was published in The Geography of Plants in 1807, in a large format (54 cm x 84 cm). Largely used for global warming analyses, this map depicts, in fact, the vegetation of another volcano: the Antisana.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 1 Jan 2021
Isothermal map of the world using Humboldt’s data by William Channing Woodbridge – 1823
Isotherms shown by dotted lines. “Entered according to Act of Congress the 15th day of January, 1823, by William C. Woodbridge of the state of Connecticut.” Covers most of the world; does not cover northwestern North America, northeastern Asia, Australia, polar regions, or most of the Pacific Ocean. National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for Access to Early Maps of the Middle Atlantic Seaboard. Prime meridian: London.
William Channing Woodbridge (Cartographer), Alexander von Humboldt (Author). Restoration by Jujutacular and Durova.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – New York Public Library – Accessed 1 January 2021
The Geographical Distribution of Plants
Outline of Botanical Geography, The Distribution of Plants in a Perpendicular Direction. Alexander von Humboldt – 1850
Published: William Blackwood, Edinburgh
51cm X 60 cm – Data Visualization
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection – Accessed 1 January 2021
Humboldt was a pioneer of scientific explanation by visualization, using images to convey complex ideas in a way that had not been explored before. Humboldt’s work was on climate and the distribution of plants and animals, but others soon began mapping many other aspects of human life such as disease, poverty and so on.
The most accurate map of New Spain (now Mexico) to date was created by Humboldt and published in his Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain) in 1811. Humboldt’s Carte du Mexique (1804) was based on existing maps of Mexico, Humboldt paid special attention to latitude and longitude. Landing at the Pacific coast port of Acapulco in 1803, Humboldt did not leave the port area for Mexico City until he produced a map of the port. When leaving he drew a map of the east coast port of Veracruz, as well as a map of the central plateau of Mexico. Given royal authorization from the Spanish crown for his trip, crown officials in Mexico were eager to aid Humboldt’s research. He had access to José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez’s Mapa del Arzobispado de México (1768), which he deemed ‘very bad’, as well as the 17th century map of greater Mexico City by savant Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora.[WP]
The Greenwich prime meridian became the international standard reference for cartographers in 1884.
Humboldt’s work was not just a highly original scientific magnum opus, but a conscious and deliberate attempt to explore the human imagination by grasping, in transparent prose, the mystery, majesty, and wonder of the natural world. It is science as a celebration of existence.
The excitement and poetry of his enterprise, its Romantic exuberance, ensured the popular appeal that won him international fame. Even among his peers he was regarded as the greatest scientist of his day. His narrative was acclaimed by some of the world’s all-time literary masters – the English Romantic poets and the German genius Goethe.
Though his scientific work would be eclipsed by the publication, in the year of his death, of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin . . . ‘, his presence was evident in Darwin’s use of engaging and insightful expression, perhaps the most notable being the meditative concluding paragraph of ‘On the Origin . . . ‘, which was Darwin’s cryptic tribute to his inspirational scientist-explorer hero.
Humboldt was a field scientist, what today we would call an ecologist, whose work was complemented by laboratory-based German experimental physiologists. The early 19th century thus became a new and third phase in humanity’s study of plants moving beyond descriptive botany as nomenclature, classification, and description and into plant science proper, as the experimental study of physiology, development, and ecology. In simple terms, it was a transition in emphasis from structure to function.
Behold! The Cosmos . . .
Finn – 27 December 2020
Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia
Image Courtesy Stephen Spencer
Phase 1 – Plant medicine
Plants in relation to humans
The first phase, which persisted into modernity, was about plant utility – concerned with plant use as food, materials, and medicines. In spite of the daily need for plant-based food it was the medicinal use of plants that acquired special significance. Plant powers (medicinal properties) were regarded as a manifestation of the supernatural and they could quickly change human lives for better or worse. The manipulation of these powers required mediators who possessed the special (often secret) knowledge of how to release these powers. Then there was also the role of the bearer of plant wisdom in mediating between the human and spirit worlds. A crude lineage can then be drawn between the shaman/medicine man, priest/scribe, apothecary/physician, academic/plant scientist.
Phase 2 – Botany
Plants in relation to plants
The second phase (with a brief interlude in the Lyceum of ancient Greece focused on plants themselves) entailed the systematization of plant knowledge, at first in relation to their medicinal properties (materia medica, herbals) but then in the refinement of their morphological structure and categorization into kinds. The advent and proliferation of printing through the 15th and 16th centuries, facilitated the sharing of information and standardization of terminology and it was at this time in history when botany diverged from medicine as medicinal botany followed one path into pharmacology and descriptive botany began its academic march towards plant science proper.
Botany then, by this understanding, consisted of the description and organization of the plant kingdom. It was the foundational inventory required before furtherr study could be pursued. Scientifically it entailed the standardization of methods and terms within a specialist plant group within the general scientific community. The emphasis of the study of botany was not on plant utility but the plants themselves: it was about plants in relation to plants as botany extricated itself from medicine to become a discrete academic discipline that persisted in this form until the early 19th century.
Phase 3 – Plant science
Plants in relation to nature
The third phase, ushered in by von Humbolt, placed emphasis on plants in relation to nature (the environment). This was botany coming of age in Industria as study moved from plant structure to plant process and change: it was a phase centred in Germany that eventually moved to Britain. While Humboldt, in the field, laid the foundations for a future ecology, his German colleagues experimented in laboratories to establish the principles of plant physiology and development. The study of plants had now evolved from static ‘botany’ to dynamic ‘plant science’ – from taxonomy, histology, and morphology, to physiology and ecology. This set the stage for the master of change, Charles Darwin, to reconfigure the entire field of biology.
Phase 4 – Plants & the future of humanity
Plants & the future
With the arrival of Informatia in the mid- 20th century, the study of plants has taken yet another turn. Plant science had solved, in principle, all the former mysteries of plant structure and function. No doubt this contributed to the advent of the Anthropocene, an era dominated by an exploding human population and its consumption. With the cracking of the genetic code, arrival of computers, information technology, globalization, and the environmental demands of human consumption, the former three phases have now been harnessed to address the future of humanity by investigating plants more deeply than ever before at the macro- and micro-scales. Environmental concern has harnessed global ecology to address climate change, species extinction, and environmental degradation of the biosphere, integrated with plant microbiology has been harnessed to address food security and the effective completion of an account of the community of life etc. What has transpired is that a large proportion of plant science is now addressing the complex global analysis and management of the place of plants in human ecology.
1769 – born 14 September, Berlin to wealthy Prussian aristocratic family; elder brother Wilhelm (1767–1835) was a minister, philosopher, and linguist
1787 – intending a political career enrols in six month finance course at the University of Frankfurt
1788 – studies at Göttingen University, developing an interest in botany, geology and minerology and befriending Georg Forster (illustrator for Cook’s second circumnavigation of the world). Pair embark on expedition to the Rhine River (from this he published Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Mineralogic Observations on Several Basalts on the River Rhine).
1790 – the pair travel for four months in Europe. Over spring and summer they visit England, the Netherlands, and France. In England he met Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, and William Bligh
1791 – Aged 21 returns to Prussia and completes studies in Hamburg, then enrols in the prestigious mining academy at Freiberg near Dresden, Saxony
1792 to 1797 – government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. Invents safety lamp and founds a technical school for aspiring miners
1792 – appointed Assessor of Mines and, subsequently, Director of Mines in the Prussian principality of Bayreuth (Franconia). Moves to Austria, living in Vienna and traveling to the salt-mining regions of Bavaria, Austria, and Galicia and into northern Italy and Switzerland where, among others, he becomes acquainted with Volta and de Saussure
1793 – publishes Florae Fribergensis Specimen the plants that he had found in mines
1794 – visits bother Wilhem in Jena, a centre of learning, progressive thinking, German Idealism and Romanticism, 150 m SW of Berlin. Has daily meetings with Goethe and Schiller at Goethe’s home in Weimar nearby
1795 – Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius published in the periodical Die Horen
1796 – mother dies releasing him from her expectations of him as a civil servant and bequeathing him sufficient money to sponsor his own explorations: begins his travels intending to join Napoleon’s scientists on the expedition in Egypt
– admires tropical plants in the imperial botanic garden in Vienna, hoping director Joseph van der Schot will join him on his travels
1797 – publishes his work relating to Galvani’s discovery of muscular irritability
– resigns job Mining Department and embarks on expedition with botanist Aimé Bonpland, first to Marseille and then to Madrid where they meet the minister for Spain, Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo, who requests and offers to finance their exploration of the Spanish American region
1798 – visits Paris and meets his hero, the 70 year old Louis de Bougainville
– meets Bonpland, botanist and former surgeon in the French navy
1799-1804 – Aged 29, travels in tropical America laying the foundations of physical geography and geophysics with survey measurements in orography, meteorology and earth magnetism, plant life and its environmental conditions, while collecting some 60,000 specimens, many new to science
1799 – May 7 a passport issued by King Carlos of Spain, giving him free access to Spanish colonies in America and Philippines but Humboldt financing the expedition himself and promising specimens for the king’s cabinet and garden. Embarks on a 24,000 mile journey to Venezuela, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador which he eventually describes in the c. 30-volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent
– sails from La Coruna, in the ship Pizarro, visiting Tenerife for 6 days, observing Leonid meteor shower on night of Nov. 11-12 which initiates modern knowledge of its periodicity
– 16 July arr. New Andalusia, Venezuela, working for 3 months in Cumana, the pair collecting 1,600 plant specimens
– explores Teide volcano
– transit to Latin American Ecuador and Lima in Peru.
1800 – Humboldt and Bonpland set out from Caracas on mules to explore the course of the Orinoco river and in four months travels about 1,725 miles of wild country, confirming link between Orinoco and Amazon rivers while studying the plant and animal life of the savannas and rain forests.
– At Callao (seaport for Lima, Peru) measures temperature of the ocean current off the west coast and which now bears his name
– observes transit of Mercury
– investigates properties of guano (leads to export of guano to Europe)
– observes electric eels
– three week trip to Lake Valencia and valley where develops the idea of human-induced climate change
– visits the Llanos
– reach the Capuchin mission in San Fernando de Apure at the Rio Apure
– at southern end of Orinoco discovers the Brazil Nut , Bertholletia excelsa, which he subsequently introduces to Europe
– August – return to Cumaná and in November sends two parcels of seed to Banks at Kew. (later Banks retrieves box of geological specimens for him, captured from a French vessel)
– November, sails for Cuba
– March, leaves Cuba for Cartagena (now north coast of Colombia)
1801 – July, arrive in Bogotá and meets Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis. Observes his magnificent botanical library (second only to that of Banks) and the art studio whose artists produced 6000 watercolour paintings of indigenous plants
1802 – – Jan. arr. Quito and climbs surrounding volcanoes
– 9 June, leaves Quito for Mt Chimborazo (then considered the world’s highest mountain), arriving 22 June. Nearly reaches the summit at height 19,413 feet. Here Humboldt sealed his ideas about nature as a web of life and a global force and, returning to the base of the mountain sketches the future Naturgemälde expressing nature, not in words but in a picture that included plants, temperatures, altitude, atmospheric pressure and so forth that could later be compared with similar conditions elsewhere on the planet
– October, arr. Lima
– sets sail in autumn to spend a year in Mexico
1803 – – arr. Guayaquil Jan as Cotopaxi erupts
– leaves Guayaquil in February.
Before returning, visits the world’s first free republic, the United States for three weeks in the spring, staying first at the White House with President-scientist Thomas Jefferson before staying at Jefferson’s fine garden and private estate, ‘Monticello’. Jefferson regards Humboldt as a fine example for Americans about to travel west
1804 – March, sails from Mexico to Cuba to pick up collections left in Havana 3 years previous
– May, departs Cuba for the eastern United States
– 1 June meets Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence) in Washington
– late June, returns to Europe in French vessel, arriving in Paris to much acclaim. He claimed to have collected, with Bonpland and others, some 60,000 plant specimens comprising 6000 species of which 2000 were new to science
– the discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth’s magnetic force from the poles to the equator is accepted by the Paris Institute
1805 – 1834 – engaged in writing the 30 volume ‘Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland’. Moves to Paris in 1807, remaining for 15 years
1805 – publishes maps of the Orinoco River.
1806 – 16 Nov. arr. Berlin with Gay-Lussac
– commences to write his ‘Ansichten der Natur’ (Views of Nature). In financial dire straits he accepts an annual pension of 2500 thalers from King Friedrich Wilhelm III to attend court as chamberlain – but finds time to lecture at the Berlin Academy of Sciences.
1807 – Joins Prussian peace mission to Paris where he stays for 15 years
1808 – First edition publication of Views of Nature, his own favourite, and a major popular best-seller published in 11 languages. An early example of science presented within an engaging narrative that would inspire future generations
– Goethe publishes the play Faust, its key character resembling Humboldt
1808-1827 – lives in Paris engaged in writing scientific accounts of his experiences and discoveries in the Americas
1810 – Completes first part of Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique a superb folio of engravings
1811 – Vol. 1 of Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain published in English
1814 – Personal Narrative published in English as first of seven volumes; extremely popular South American travelogue which Darwin ‘Almost knew by heart’
1817 – Travels to London to petitions the East India Company for an expedition to India, but his anti-colonial views unpopular and permission was denied
1827 – Aged 57, he returns to Berlin via London where he again petitions the East India Company and visits Robert Brown at Kew to discuss the Australian flora, also inspecting with engineer Isambard Brunel, the first tunnel under the Thames
1827-1829 – travels to Berlin on a popular speaking tour, giving 61 lectures at the University of Berlin, so popular that a further 16 were given at the Singakademie, attracting all sectors of society and with a large female component (not permitted in universities and scientific societies). This encouraged him to synthesize his research into the earth and nature
1829 – accepts invitation from tsar of Russia to travel central Asia traveling as far as the Chinese border, returning vis the Caspian Sea. This expedition completes the meteorological data for his isothermal world map. With C.G. Ehrenberg and Gustav Rose, traveled across the vast expanse of the Russian empire, the results published by Ehrenberg and Rose. His own work on this expedition was the three-volume descriptive geography Asie Centrale published much later. This work was very modest in comparison to Humboldt’s South American publications.
1830 – exhausts his fortune and earns an income as advisor to the Prussian court as king’s chamberlain
1839 – Publication of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (Humboldt 40 years older than Darwin). Humboldt writes ‘One of the most remarkable works that, in the course of a long life, I have had the pleasure to see published’)
1845 – 1847 – first two volumes of ‘Kosmos’ – Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe – published in 1845 and 1847 and acclaimed as monumental contribution to natural science
1850 – 1858 – second and third volumes of ‘Kosmos’ published
1859 – dies in Berlin 6 May, working on ‘Kosmos’ up to a few weeks before his death. Awarded a state funeral
1862 – fifth volume of ‘Cosmos’ published posthumously
- Intellectual influences included the Enlightenment, German Romanticism and Idealism, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and the Naturphilosophie of Schelling
- His major contributions were in physical geography, biogeography, and meteorology
- His ideas ranged across plant geography, landscape change, purpose in nature, the contemporary influence of physical reductionism, the use of analysis and synthesis as alternative scientific methods, biological and social globalization, and the multidisciplinary connectedness of all things as perceived by the human mind
- His major thoughts on plant geography were distilled in his Essay on the geography of plants and its famous illustration, the Naturgemälde. This was a new field botany, the latent ecology that complemented the pioneering laboratory studies of plant physiology that were being led by German botanists at this time
- In 1842, Schleiden’s Principles of scientific botany revolutionized future plant study by marking, in effect, the transition from descriptive botany to experimental plant science
- In the first half of the 19th century, with the combined studies of field scientist Humboldt and laboratory-based German experimental plant physiologists, the study of plants moved into a third phase . . . beyond plants as medicines, and descriptive structural botany (as nomenclature, classification, and description), to plant science proper – the experimental study of plant function (as physiology, development, and ecology).
Contributions of Humboldt and Ritter in geographical thought
The geoecologist – 2020 – 14:25
She’s THE Humboldt expert on earth | Meet Biographer Andrea Wulf | Expert on Alexander von Humboldt
DW Books – 2019 – 25:14
Alexander von Humboldt – Documentary
Geckos and Gum Leaves – 2017 – 49:31
First published on the internet – 27 December 2020
Alexander von Humboldt & Bonpland’s Expedition to the Americas – 1799-1804
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Alexrk translated by Cäsium137 – Accessed 27 December 2020
Map of Humboldt’s expedition to Russia in 1829
Museumfür Naturkunde Humboldt Exhibition
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 27 December 2020