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For American-born Spaniards creoles who were seeking sources of pride in Mexico's ancient past, Humboldt's recognition of these ancient works and dissemination in his publications was a boon. He read the work of exiled Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero , which celebrated Mexico's prehispanic civilization, and which Humboldt invoked to counter the pejorative assertions about the new world by Buffon, de Pauw, and Raynal. One of his most widely read publications resulting from his travels and investigations in Spanish America was the Essai politique sur le royaum de la Nouvelle Espagne , quickly translated to English as Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain Leaving from Cuba, Humboldt decided to take an unplanned short visit to the United States.

Knowing that the current U. Jefferson warmly replied, inviting him to visit the White House in the nation's new capital. In his letter Humboldt had gained Jefferson's interest by mentioning that he had discovered mammoth teeth near the Equator. Jefferson had previously written that he believed mammoths had never lived so far south. Humboldt had also hinted at his knowledge of New Spain. Arriving in Philadelphia , which was a center of learning in the U. After arriving in Washington D. C, Humboldt held numerous intense discussions with Jefferson on both scientific matters and also his year-long stay in New Spain.

Jefferson had only recently concluded the Louisiana Purchase , which now placed New Spain on the southwest border of the United States. The Spanish minister in Washington, D. Humboldt was able to supply Jefferson with the latest information on the population, trade agriculture and military of New Spain. Jefferson was unsure of where the border of the newly-purchased Louisiana was precisely, and Humboldt wrote him a two-page report on the matter. Jefferson would later refer to Humboldt as "the most scientific man of the age". Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, said of Humboldt "I was delighted and swallowed more information of various kinds in less than two hours than I had for two years past in all I had read or heard".

Gallatin, in turn, supplied Humboldt with information he sought on the United States. After six weeks, Humboldt set sail for Europe from the mouth of the Delaware and landed at Bordeaux on 3 August Humboldt kept a detailed diary of his sojourn to Spanish America, running some 4, pages, which he drew on directly for his multiple publications following the expedition. Following German reunification, the diaries were returned to a descendant of Humboldt. For a time, there was concern about their being sold, but that was averted.

Humboldt's decades' long endeavor to publish the results of this expedition not only resulted in multiple volumes, but also made his international reputation in scientific circles. Humboldt came to be well-known with the reading public as well, with popular, densely illustrated, condensed versions of his work in multiple languages. Bonpland, his fellow scientist and collaborator on the expedition, collected botanical specimens and preserved them, but unlike Humboldt who had a passion to publish, Bonpland had to be prodded to do the formal descriptions.

Many scientific travelers and explorers produced huge visual records, which remained unseen by the general public until the late nineteenth century, in the case of the Malaspina Expedition, and even the late twentieth century, when Mutis's botanical, some 12, drawings from New Granada, was published. Humboldt, by contrast, published immediately and continuously, using and ultimately exhausting his personal fortune, to produce both scientific and popular texts.

Humboldt's name and fame were made by his travels to Spanish America, particularly his publication of the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. His image as the premier European scientist was a later development. For the Bourbon crown, which had authorized the expedition, the returns were not only tremendous in terms of sheer volume of data on their New World realms, but in dispelling the vague and pejorative assessments of the New World by Guillaume-Thomas Raynal , Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon , and William Robertson. The achievements of the Bourbon regime, especially in New Spain, were evident in the precise data Humboldt systematized and published.

This memorable expedition may be regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography , plant geography , and meteorology. Key to that was Humboldt's meticulous and systematic measurement of phenomena with the most advanced instruments then available. 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. Humboldt saw the need for an approach to science that could account for the harmony of nature among the diversity of the physical world. For Humboldt, "the unity of nature" meant that it was the interrelation of all physical sciences —such as the conjoining between biology , meteorology and geology —that determined where specific plants grew.

Godless revolutionary: the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt

He found these relationships by unraveling myriad, painstakingly collected data, [89] data extensive enough that it became an enduring foundation upon which others could base their work. Humboldt viewed nature holistically , and tried to explain natural phenomena without the appeal to religious dogma. He believed in the central importance of observation, and as a consequence had amassed a vast array of the most sophisticated scientific instruments then available. Each had its own velvet lined box and was the most accurate and portable of its time; nothing quantifiable escaped measurement.

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. This quantitative methodology would become known as Humboldtian science. Humboldt wrote "Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision. His Essay on the Geography of Plants published first in French and then German, both in was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions.

It was a fold-out at the back of the publication. These detailed the information on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmosphere pressure, and the animal and plants with their scientific names found at each elevation. Plants from the same genus appear at different elevations. The depiction is on an east-west axis going from the Pacific coast lowlands to the Andean range of which Chimborazo was a part, and the eastern Amazonian basin. The map was the basis for comparison with other major peaks. By his delineation in of isothermal lines, he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries.

He first investigated the rate of decrease in mean temperature with the increase in elevation above sea level, and afforded, by his inquiries regarding the origin of tropical storms, the earliest clue to the detection of the more complicated law governing atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes. His discovery of the decrease in intensity of Earth's magnetic field from the poles to the equator was communicated to the Paris Institute in a memoir read by him on 7 December Its importance was attested by the speedy emergence of rival claims. His services to geology were based on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the Andes and Mexico, which he observed and sketched, climbed, and measured with a variety of instruments.

By climbing Chimborazo, he established an altitude record which became the basis for measurement of other volcanoes in the Andes and the Himalayas. As with other aspects of his investigations, he developed methods to show his synthesized results visually, using the graphic method of geologic-cross sections. Humboldt was a significant contributor to cartography, creating maps, particularly of New Spain, that became the template for later mapmakers in Mexico.

His careful recording of latitude and longitude led to accurate maps of Mexico, the port of Acapulco, the port of Veracruz, and the Valley of Mexico, and a map showing trade patterns among continents. His maps also included schematic information on geography, converting areas of administrative districts intendancies using proportional squares. Humboldt conducted a census of the indigenous and European inhabitants in New Spain , publishing a schematized drawing of racial types and populations distribution, grouping them by region and social characteristics.

He presented these data in chart form, for easier understanding. Humboldt observed that "the most miserable European, without education and without intellectual cultivation, thinks himself superior to whites born in the new continent". Humboldt's assessment was that royal government abuses and the example of a new model of rule in the United States were eroded the unity of whites in New Spain.

One scholar says that his writings contain fantastical descriptions of America, while leaving out its inhabitants, stating that Humboldt, coming from the Romantic school of thought, believed ' Views of indigenous peoples as 'savage' or 'unimportant' leaves them out of the historical picture. He often showed his disgust for the slavery [] and inhumane conditions in which indigenous peoples and others were treated and he often criticized Spanish colonial policies. Humboldt was not primarily an artist, but he could draw well, allowing him to record a visual record of particular places and their natural environment.

Many of his drawings became the basis for illustrations of his many scientific and general publications. The editing and publication of the encyclopedic mass of scientific, political and archaeological material that had been collected by him during his absence from Europe was now Humboldt's most urgent desire.


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After a short trip to Italy with Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac for the purpose of investigating the law of magnetic declination and a stay of two and a half years in Berlin, in the spring of , he settled in Paris. His purpose for being located there was to secure the scientific cooperation required for bringing his great work through the press. This colossal task, which he at first hoped would occupy but two years, eventually cost him twenty-one, and even then it remained incomplete.

Statue to Humboldt in Alameda Park, Mexico City, erected on the two hundredth-anniversary of the beginning of his travels to Spanish America. During his lifetime Humboldt became one of the most famous men in Europe. He was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in The Royal Society , whose president Sir Joseph Banks had aided Humboldt as a young man, now welcomed him as a foreign member. After Mexican independence from Spain in , the Mexican government recognized him with high honors for his services to the nation.

Importantly for Humboldt's long term financial stability, King Frederick William III of Prussia conferred upon him the honor of the post of royal chamberlain, without at the time exacting the duties. The appointment had a pension of 2, thalers , afterwards doubled. This official stipend became his main source of income in later years when he exhausted his fortune on the publications of his research.

Financial necessity forced his permanent relocation to Berlin in from Paris. In Paris he found not only scientific sympathy, but the social stimulus which his vigorous and healthy mind eagerly craved. He was equally in his element as the lion of the salons and as the savant of the Institut de France and the observatory. On 12 May he settled permanently in Berlin, where his first efforts were directed towards the furtherance of the science of terrestrial magnetism. In , he began giving public lectures in Berlin, which became the basis for his last major publication, Kosmos — For many years, it had been one of his favorite schemes to secure, by means of simultaneous observations at distant points, a thorough investigation of the nature and law of " magnetic storms " a term invented by him to designate abnormal disturbances of Earth's magnetism.

The meeting at Berlin, on 18 September , of a newly formed scientific association, of which he was elected president, gave him the opportunity of setting on foot an extensive system of research in combination with his diligent personal observations. His appeal to the Russian government, in , led to the establishment of a line of magnetic and meteorological stations across northern Asia. Meanwhile, his letter to the Duke of Sussex , then April president of the Royal Society , secured for the undertaking, the wide basis of the British dominions.

In , the th year of his birth, Humboldt's fame was so great that cities all over America celebrated his birth with large festivals. Scholars have speculated about the reasons for Humboldt's declining renown among the public. Sandra Nichols has argued that there are three reasons for this. First, a trend towards specialization in scholarship.

Humboldt was a generalist who connected many disciplines in his work. Today, academics have become more and more focused on narrow fields of work. Humboldt combined ecology , geography and even social sciences. Second, a change in writing style. Humboldt's works, which were considered essential to a library in , had flowery prose that fell out of fashion. One critic said they had a "laborious picturesqueness". Humboldt himself said that, "If I only knew how to describe adequately how and what I felt, I might, after this long journey of mine, really be able to give happiness to people.

The disjointed life I lead makes me hardly certain of my way of writing". Third, a rising anti-German sentiment in the late s and the early s due to heavy German immigration to the United States and later World War 1. In , and again in , projects of Asiatic exploration were proposed to Humboldt, first by Czar Nicolas I 's Russian government, and afterwards by the Prussian government; but on each occasion, untoward circumstances interposed.

It was not until he had begun his sixtieth year that he resumed his early role of traveler in the interests of science. Humboldt was not encouraging about a platinum -based currency, when silver was the standard as a world currency. But the invitation to visit the Urals was intriguing, especially since Humboldt had long dreamed of going to Asia. He had wanted to travel to India and made considerable efforts to persuade the British East India Company to authorize a trip, but those efforts were fruitless.

For Humboldt, the Russian monarch's promise to fund the trip was extremely important, since Humboldt's inherited , thaler fortune was gone and he lived on the Prussian government pension of 2,—3, thalers as the monarch's chamberlain. The Russian government gave an advance of chervontsev in Berlin and another 20, when he arrived in St Petersburg. Humboldt was eager to travel not just to the Urals, but also across the steppes of Siberia to Russia's border with China.

Humboldt wrote Cancrin saying that he intended to learn Russian to read mining journals in the language. He also invited Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg to join the expedition, to study water micro-organisms in Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea. Humboldt himself was keen to continue his studies of magnetism of mountains and mineral deposits. As was usual for his research, he brought scientific instruments to take the most accurate measurements. Humboldt's title for the expedition was as an official of the Department of Mines. As the expedition neared dangerous areas, he had to travel in a convoy with an escort.

Physically Humboldt was in good condition, despite his advancing years, writing to Cancrin "I still walk very lightly on foot, nine to ten hours without resting, despite my age and my white hair". Humboldt and the expedition party traveled by coach on well maintained roads, with rapid progress being made because of changes of horses at way stations. The party had grown, with Johann Seifert, who was a huntsman and collector of animal specimens; a Russian mining official; Count Adolphe Polier, one of Humboldt's friends from Paris; a cook; plus a contingent of Cossacks for security.

Three carriages were filled with people, supplies, and scientific instruments. For Humboldt's magnetic readings to be accurate, they carried an iron-free tent. The Russian government was interested in Humboldt finding prospects for mining and commercial advancement of the realm and made it clear that Humboldt was not to investigate social issues, nor criticize social conditions of Russian serfs.

In his publications on Spanish America, he did comment on the conditions of the indigenous populations, and deplored black slavery, but well after he had left those territories.


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The itinerary was planned with Tobolsk the farthest destination, then a return to St Petersburg. Humboldt wrote to the Russian Minister Cancrin that he was extending his travel, knowing that the missive would not reach him in time to scuttle the plan. The further east he journeyed into wilder territory, the more Humboldt enjoyed it.

The journey though carried out with all the advantages afforded by the immediate patronage of the Russian government, was too rapid to be profitable scientifically. The correction of the prevalent exaggerated estimate of the height of the Central Asian plateau, and the prediction of the discovery of diamonds in the gold-washings of the Urals, were important aspects of these travels. One writer claims that "Nothing was quite as Humboldt wanted it. The entire expedition was a compromise. In , he completed the three-volume Asie Centrale , [] which he dedicated to Czar Nicholas, which he called "an unavoidable step, as the expedition was accomplished at his expense".

Nevertheless, it gave Humboldt comparative data for his various later scientific publications. Kosmos was Humboldt's multi-volume effort in his later years to write a work bringing together all the research from his long career. The writing took shape in lectures he delivered before the University of Berlin in the winter of — These lectures would form "the cartoon for the great fresco of the [K]osmos ".

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The first two volumes of the Kosmos were published between the years and were intended to comprise the entire work, but Humboldt published three more volumes, one of which was posthumous. Humboldt had long aimed to write a comprehensive work about geography and the natural sciences. The work attempted to unify the sciences then known in a Kantian framework. With inspiration from German Romanticism , Humboldt sought to create a compendium of the world's environment. The third and fourth volumes were published in —58; a fragment of a fifth appeared posthumously in His reputation had long since been made with his publications on the Latin American expedition.

There is not a consensus on the importance of Kosmos. One scholar, who stresses the importance of Humboldt's Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain as essential reading, dismisses Kosmos as "little more than an academic curiosity". As with most of Humboldt's works, Kosmos was also translated into multiple languages in editions of uneven quality. It was very popular in Britain and America.

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In a German newspaper commented that in England two of the three different translations were made by women, "while in Germany most of the men do not understand it". In a letter Humboldt said of it: "It will damage my reputation. All the charm of my description is destroyed by an English sounding like Sanskrit.

The other two translations were made by Elizabeth Juliana Leeves Sabine under the superintendence of her husband Col. These three translations were also published in the United States. The numbering of the volumes differs between the German and the English editions. Volume 3 of the German edition corresponds to the volumes 3 and 4 of the English translation, as the German volume appeared in 2 parts in and Volume 5 of the German edition was not translated until , again by a woman.

Less well known in Germany is the atlas belonging to the German edition of the Cosmos "Berghaus' Physikalischer Atlas" , better known as the pirated version by Traugott Bromme under the title "Atlas zu Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos" Stuttgart In Britain its connection to the Cosmos seems not have been recognized. Alexander von Humboldt published prolifically throughout his life.

Many works were published originally in French or German, then translated to other languages, sometimes with competing translation editions. Humboldt himself did not keep track of all the various editions. Many of the original works have been digitally scanned by the Biodiversity Library. In the original edition, the publication was in a large format and quite expensive.

Humboldt was generous toward his friends and mentored young scientists. He and Bonpland parted ways after their return to Europe, and Humboldt largely took on the task of publishing the results of their Latin American expedition at Humboldt's expense, but he included Bonpland as co-author on the nearly published 30 volumes. Bonpland returned to Latin America, settling in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then moved to the countryside near the border with Paraguay. The forces of Dr. Bonpland was accused of "agricultural espionage" and of threatening Paraguay's virtual monopoly on the cultivation of yerba mate.

He was released after nearly 10 years in Paraguay. Humboldt and Bonpland maintained a warm correspondence about science and politics until Bonpland's death in Subsequently, Humboldt acted as a mentor of the career of this promising Peruvian scientist. Another recipient of Humboldt's aid was Louis Agassiz — , who was directly aided with needed cash from Humboldt, assistance in securing an academic position, and help with getting his research on zoology published. Agassiz sent him copies of his publications and went on to gain considerable scientific recognition as a professor at Harvard.

Humboldt carried on correspondence with many contemporaries and two volumes of letters to Karl August Varnhagen von Ense have been published. Charles Darwin made frequent reference to Humboldt's work in his Voyage of the Beagle , where Darwin described his own scientific exploration of the Americas. In one note, he placed Humboldt first on the "list of American travellers". Darwin's sister remarked to him "you had, probably from reading so much of Humboldt, got his phraseology and the kind of flower French expressions he uses".

When Darwin's Journal was published, he sent a copy to Humboldt, who responded, "You told me in your kind letter that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed toward exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring. Humboldt would later reveal to Darwin in the s that he had been a fan of Darwin's grandfather's poetry.

Erasmus Darwin had published the poem "Loves of the Plants" in the early s. Humboldt praised the poem for combining nature and imagination, a theme that permeated Humboldt's own work. A number of nineteenth-century artists traveled to Latin America, following in the footsteps of Humboldt, painting landscapes and scenes of everyday life.

His paintings of Andean volcanoes that Humboldt climbed helped make Church's reputation. His 5 foot by 10 foot painting entitled Heart of the Andes "caused a sensation" when it was completed.

Humboldt, Alexander Von

Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show the painting to Humboldt, but Humboldt died a few days after Church's letter was written. George Catlin , most famous for his portraits of North American Indians and paintings of life among various North American tribes also traveled to South America, producing a number of paintings. He wrote to Humboldt in , sending him his proposal for South American travels. Humboldt replied, thanking him and sending a memorandum helping guide his travels. Ferdinand Bellermann, Colonia Tovar. Ferdinand Bellermann. Llaneros The Prussian royal family returned to Berlin, but sought better terms of the treaty and Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned his younger brother Prince Wilhelm with this.

Friedrich Wilhelm III asked Alexander to be part of the mission, charged with introducing the prince to Paris society. This turn of events for Humboldt could not have been better, since he desired to live in Paris rather than Berlin. In Humboldt accompanied the allied sovereigns to London. Three years later he was summoned by the king of Prussia to attend him at the congress of Aachen. Again in the autumn of he accompanied the same monarch to the Congress of Verona , proceeded thence with the royal party to Rome and Naples and returned to Paris in the spring of Humboldt had long regarded Paris as his true home.

Thus, when at last he received from his sovereign a summons to join his court at Berlin, he obeyed reluctantly. Between and Humboldt was frequently employed in diplomatic missions to the court of King Louis Philippe of France, with whom he always maintained the most cordial personal relations.

Humboldt knew the family, and he was sent by the Prussian monarch to Paris to report on events to his monarch. He spent three years in France, from to Humboldt's brother, Wilhelm , died on 8 April Alexander lamented that he had lost half of himself with the death of his brother. Indeed, the new king's craving for Humboldt's company became at times so importunate as to leave him only a few waking hours to work on his writing. Because Humboldt did not mention God in his work Cosmos , and sometimes spoke unfavourably of religious attitudes, it was occasionally speculated that he was a materialist philosopher, or perhaps an atheist.

Ingersoll , who went so far as to use Humboldtian science to campaign against religion, [] Humboldt himself denied imputations of atheism. In a letter to Varnhagen von Ense he emphasized that he believed the world had indeed been created, writing of Cosmos : " And did I not, only eight months ago, in the French translation, say, in the plainest terms: 'It is this necessity of things, this occult but permanent connection, this periodical return in the progress, development of formation, phenomena, and events which constitute 'Nature' submissive to a controlling power?

The connections he made there—among them Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—were added to a growing network of international correspondents, who kept him abreast of all things scientific in Europe and the Americas. His star may rise again with the efforts of the Alexander von Humboldt in English project.

For each of his books, Humboldt wrote in a distinctive style. Other pieces read like extended but elegantly written scientific abstracts. Throughout his works, Humboldt was always tossing around fresh ideas. He was up against a prevailing view that the Americas had no history to speak of, says Kutzinski.

Alexander von Humboldt

His Latin American writings broke down that wall by providing factual information. As a compromise, he agreed to study mining. For the next half-decade, Humboldt worked as a mine inspector for the Prussian government. He also invented a new kind of respirator, designed a better safety lamp, and published a book on subterranean flora. Meanwhile, he began to experiment, even on himself.

But he neglected to draw the crucial inferences from his own work, and the battery was instead invented, shortly afterward, by Alessandro Volta. He soon signed on to an around-the-world voyage being underwritten by the French government, but it was called off, when the government decided that it needed the money to fight the Austrians.

A well-known imbecile, Carlos seems to have imagined that sending a mining expert to the New World would yield new riches for the Crown. Equipped with forty-two crates of scientific instruments, including a cyanometer, for measuring the blueness of the sky, Humboldt set sail. This was either a very grand plan or no plan at all. Unfazed, he set off across the Llanos, the vast plain east of the Andes, where he was excited to encounter rivers filled with electric eels.

Naturally, he decided to renew his experiments. The heat was unbearable and the mosquitoes were worse. Nevertheless, he was enchanted. Jaguars, tapirs, and peccaries came down to the river to drink:. They are not frightened of the canoes, so we see them skirting the river until they disappear into the jungle through a gap in the hedge. I confess that these often repeated scenes greatly appeal to me. The pleasure comes not solely from the curiosity a naturalist feels for the objects of his studies, but also from a feeling common to all men brought up in the customs of civilization.

You find yourself in a new world, in a wild, untamed nature. All kinds of animals appear, one after the other. A year and a half after leaving Europe, Humboldt finally made it to Havana. He was planning to sail from there to Mexico when, once again, chance intervened.

He reasoned that the expedition would stop in Lima before crossing the Pacific, and decided to catch up with it there. This entailed sailing back to South America, to Cartagena, then trekking across the Andes, a journey of some twenty-five hundred miles. When Humboldt reached Quito, nine months later, he learned that the French expedition had travelled in the opposite direction, around the Cape of Good Hope.

He ended up spending five years in South America.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

On his way back to Europe, Humboldt stopped in Washington, D. But, as the decades wore on, he grew disenchanted. The influence of slavery is increasing, I fear.