Alexander von Humboldt
Reading Time: ( Word Count: )
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 a literary flourish, 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 work would be eclipsed by the publication, in the year of his death, of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin . . . ‘, his style was evident in Darwin’s more engaging and insightful prose, perhaps the most notable being the meditative concluding paragraph, a cryptic tribute to his inspirational scientist-explorer hero.
With Humboldt the study of plants moved into a third phase.
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. Of these it was the medicinal use that acquired an academic aura. Plant powers (a manifestation of the supernatural) could quickly change human lives for better or worse: they required managers who were also mediators with special (often secret) knowledge and access to other worlds -first the shaman/medicine man, then the priest/scribe, followed by the apothecary/physician and leaning towards the role of plant academic.
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) would last through Nature and Agraria, into the age of printed herbals in the 16th and 17th centuries when, at last, medicinal botany followed one path and descriptive botany (essentially morphology and taxonomy, the delineation of kinds), another. Botany was about plants in relation to plants as botany extricated itself from medicine to become a discrete academic discipline that lasted in this form until the mid 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 devlops 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’
1805 – publishes maps of the Orinoco River.
1806 – 16 Nov. arr. Berlin with Gay-Lussac
– commences to write his ‘Ansichten der Natur’. 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
1808 – 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
1827 – returns to Berlin
1827-1829 – travels to Berlin on a popular speaking tour that encourages him to synthesize his researches 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
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
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