Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859. German geographer, naturalist, and traveler. Second Columbus and Aristotle.


Life and Work:

1. “The real discoverer of South America was Humboldt, since his work was more useful for our people than that of all the conquerors,” wrote the statesman and fighter for the independence of the South American colonies Simon Bolivar about Alexander von Humboldt.


2. Bolivar was not exaggerating. Few people realize that it was the remarkable geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who truly discovered America for Europeans. No wonder he was called the second Columbus.


3. For the breadth of his scientific interests, contemporaries called Humboldt Aristotle of the 19th century. Indeed, their scope is amazing: among the German scholar’s scientific advantages is no more no less the creation of physical geography as a science. And even more than that: Humboldt is considered the founder of several other scientific disciplines: landscape studies, plant geography, climatology, geomagnetism.


4. It was Humboldt who described the marine and continental climate and established the nature of their differences, invented the method of isotherms, studied atmospheric air together with Gay-Lussac, introduced the concept of the life sphere, which later transformed into the term biosphere. Humboldt’s contribution to science is important and undeniable.


5. The second Columbus was born in the heart of the Old World – in Berlin, in an upper world family. His father distinguished himself during the Seven Years’ War, was appointed chamberlain, and married a wealthy widow. By a curious coincidence, Humboldt’s mother’s maiden name was Colomb.


6. Alexander’s elder brother Wilhelm also became a well-known scholar – philologist, linguist, philosopher.


7. The godson of the future King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, had excellent home teachers, proponents of Enlightenment ideas, but he showed no great academic achievements. Since early childhood, Alexander was interested in blades of grass and pebbles. When an aristocratic relative sarcastically asked whether the boy was going to become an apothecary, young Humboldt answered sharply, “It’s better to be an apothecary than a chamberlain!”


8. Humboldt took no interest in economics and finance at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder. At the famous University of Göttingen, he attended lectures by eminent scientists, received a comprehensive education, and wrote his first scientific papers. At the same time, Humboldt was seized by a passion for travel.


9. Later, Humboldt learned languages in Hamburg, studied geology in Freiberg. Then he returned to Berlin being a well-educated and wealthy young man. Nothing stood between him and the longed-for journeys – except his mother’s will, who disapproved of long-distance travel.


10. Work in the mining and industrial department promised a quick career and implied no tedious official duties. The erudite and energetic Humboldt threw himself into the work, proposed certain improvements, and quickly achieved greater productivity of the mines with a reduced number of injuries and accidents. He opened schools for illiterate miners with his own money.


11. At that time, Humboldt developed a habit of sleeping for no more than five hours a day. “They think I have eight legs and four arms,” the scientist wrote. But how else could he manage to perform official duties and work on scientific articles on geology, botany, physics, and chemistry at the same time?


12. After his mother’s death, Humboldt was finally able to resign. His scientific goals were set: the scientist was going to undertake “physical description of the world.” In practice, it looked like this: Humboldt wanted to comprehensively study one of the planet’s regions, systematically describe it and use this information to write a work for the general audience containing the quintessence of scientific knowledge about the world. According to Humboldt, he decided to “embrace heaven and earth.”


13. Now Humboldt’s journey to the New World is sometimes described as “the second discovery of America.” The explorer received the highest permission to conduct research in the Spanish territories of America and the Pacific Ocean from King Charles IV. He took almost 50 latest instruments and devices with him to the expedition.


14. Humboldt spent his entire fortune on the scientific expedition to America. However, the five-year journey yielded impressive results. Humboldt and his colleagues processed the gathered materials for two decades. The scientist determined the latitude and longitude of many points, studied the orography of the area, collected data on the climate of the region and described its distinctive features. He mapped the sea current along the western shores of America, which was named the Humboldt Current in his honor.


15. Humboldt collected extensive material on the history of the countries he visited. Ethnography, languages, political structure – all this was within the scope of the scientist’s attention.


16. Humboldt’s expedition gathered enormous botanical and zoological collections. Almost half of the more than 4,000 plant species were new to science.


17. During the trip, Alexander Humboldt tried to climb the Chimborazo volcano, which was considered the highest peak in the world at the time. The scientist did not reach the top, but he was among the first in the world to describe altitude sickness.


18. The first volume of the giant work Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804 edited by Alexander Humboldt, was published in 1807, the thirtieth and the last – in 1833. Much of the work was done by Humboldt’s companion botanist and geographer Aimé Bonpland.


19. In the three-volume work Central Asia Humboldt outlined the results of his trip to Russia. The scientist visited St. Petersburg and Moscow, the Ural factories and deposits, and made a trip to the Caspian Sea. Since the scientist traveled at the invitation of the Russian government and at its expense, Humboldt drew attention to the plight of serfs and the pitiful state of industry, but refrained from writing about it publicly.


20. In St. Petersburg, Humboldt met with Pushkin. “Isn’t it true that Humboldt is like those marble lions on the fountains? Fascinating speeches are erupting out of his mouth,” the great Russian poet shared his impressions.


21. “In the late evening of an active life I offer to the German public a work, whose undefined image has floated before my mind for almost half a century,” Humboldt wrote in the preface to Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe. The first volume of the scientific and philosophical work was published in 1845. Until the last days of his life, Humboldt worked on the fifth volume, but had not enough time to complete it.


22. Humboldt’s ingenuity went down in history. They say that the French physicist Joseph Gay-Lussac once ordered a batch of thin-walled glass tubes for experiments from Germany. However, the German customs imposed a high duty on the parcel for exporting glass products. Humboldt found a way out: he came up with the idea of sealing the tubes, thereby turning them into containers. The scientist even made an inscription on the package: “Careful, German air!”


23. In Russia, a mountain in the Urals was named after Humboldt. The Humboldt Mountains in the United States, Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and the Humboldt Range in China bear his name. Humboldt Glacier is located in Greenland, and there are cities named after him in the United States and Canada… It is hard to list all the geographical objects that preserve the memory of the scientist and science popularizer.


24. The name of the great naturalist is immortalized in the names of almost a dozen living creatures. Among them: Humboldt dolphin, Humboldt squid, Humboldt’s woolly monkey, Humboldt penguin, Humboldt clingfish, Humboldt’s skunk. Four genera of plants bear the scientist’s name: humboldtara from the orchid family, humboldtia from the orchid family, humboldtia from the legumes family, and humboltiela from the legumes family. Botanical reference books list more than three hundred species of plants named after Humboldt.