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Humboldt

The greatest scientific traveler who ever lived

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Baron Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769. He became a naturalist explorer and revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ 

He is admired and famous around the world but less well known by Americans. We wonder why this is. The photo on the right is of a bust of Humboldt in New York's Central Park.

Humboldt lectured about his travels, investigations and ideas and published his life work in a multi volume magnum opus titled "Kosmos".  His work went on to inspire Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, among many others.

Charles Darwin (b.1809-d.1882) called Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” and about 25 years after Humboldt’s 1799-1804 travels in New Spain, when Darwin set off on his own 1831-1836 journey aboard the Beagle, he took with him a copy of Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”. While on the Beagle, in a 1833 letter to his sister, Darwin wrote, “You people at home cannot appreciate the exceeding value of Books.”


  1. Humboldt’s 1799-1804 expedition to New Spain (now Central and Southern Mexico) is regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography, plant geography, and meteorology. He closely observed plant and animal species in situ, not just in isolation, noting all elements in relation to one other. He collected specimens of plants and animals, dividing the growing collection so that if a portion was lost, other parts might survive.
  2. According to Humboldt, everything should be measured with the finest and most modern instruments and sophisticated techniques available, for that collected data was the basis of all scientific understanding.
  3. Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.
  4. He dissected electric eels in Venezuela to learn about electricity and magnetism.
  5. Humboldt measured the temperatures of the ocean current off the west coast of South America. 
  6. During the 1799-1804 expedition, he also observed the transit of Mercury and made investigations into the properties of guano that led ultimately to the export of guano to Europe as a fertilizer.
  7. Much of his influence on science came from his graphic records of his work. His delineation of isothermal lines (done in 1817) suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climactic conditions of various countries. 
  8. He was the first to investigate the rate of decrease in mean temperature with increase of elevation above sea level
  9. He also introduced the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions. A publication of his in 1806 was the beginning of the concept of post-Darwinian biogeography.
  10. Humboldt discovered the decrease in intensity of the earth's magnetic force from the poles to the equator. 
  11. His study of the volcanoes of the new world demonstrated that they fell naturally in linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures.
  12. In a period when all sciences tended toward specialization, Humboldt trended toward universalism.
 
 
 
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An image of Humboldt from
a Berlin postage stamp
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