Alexander Von Humboldt, the last person who knew it all

In June 1802, midway through his five-year scientific exploration of Spanish America, Alexander von Humboldt set out to climb Chimborazo, a 20,564-foot volcano in Ecuador’s Cordillera Occidental. At the time it was believed to be the highest mountain in the world (a claim that has recently been thrown back into discussion by scientists measuring from the center of the earth).

Humboldt started up the mountain at the head of a group of seven, which was soon reduced to four. “The Indians who followed us had gone and said we were trying to kill them,” Humboldt recalled in a letter to his brother. They pushed on: Humboldt, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, Ecuadorian hidalgo Carlos de Montúfar, and an unnamed servant loaded with instruments. Lacking even the most basic climbing equipment, the quartet continued their ascent, at times scrambling over razor-sharp sections on all fours. Humboldt noted his lack of mental acuity, which he correctly attributed to the lack of oxygen at altitude, but it was a 60-foot crevasse that finally stopped them. Not even Humboldt could imagine a way around it. Yet the group had climbed higher than any Europeans in recorded history, reaching 19,286 feet by Humboldt’s careful calculations (the Incas had climbed higher, though archaeological evidence of their holdings would not appear for almost two centuries).

Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland near the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, in an 1810 painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch. Wikimedia Commons

It was here, on the slopes of Chimborazo, as the clouds gave way to a view of the surrounding landscape, that Humboldt was struck with the revolutionary conviction that the world was a single, web-like, interconnected organism.

Humboldt’s ideas about the natural world were a revelation. He wrote so prodigiously when he returned that he later admitted to having lost track of exactly how many books he had written. (The count reached 30 published volumes, not including his journals of his explorations in South America, Cuba and Mexico, which ran to 4,000 pages and brought in $13.7 million in 2013. This is in addition to some 30,000 letters he wrote to some 2,800 people .)

All this writing made Humboldt the most famous scientist of his time and a worldwide influence in every field of scientific inquiry. Charles Darwin simply proclaimed him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 to a prominent Prussian family and began exploring his natural surroundings at an early age. He was pushed academically by his precocious older brother, Wilhelmthere became a noted diplomat, philosopher and linguist in his own right.

As a young man, Alexander studied geology and took a position as a mine inspector to appease his demanding and emotionally distant mother. In this short career, Humboldt opened a free school for miners (paid for out of his own pocket) and sought to establish a relief fund for injured workers. He also devised a miner’s lamp that would work in the oxygen-poor air of the mines. Testing it was the first of many times his scientific curiosity would nearly kill him; the lamp continued to burn long after Humboldt had passed out from lack of oxygen. A colleague “groped for me in the dark and found me unconscious next to the lamp,” Humboldt recalled.

Humboldt excelled at mining—pits under his supervision produced more gold in his first year than they had in the previous eight—but no single subject could hold his interest for long. His first book was a botanical treatise, written in his spare time and published when he was 23 years old. He next produced two volumes on the effects of electrical impulses on muscle movement. For this he resorted to self-experimentation, applying electrodes to open wounds in his back and charging himself with electric current to observe the results.

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde depicts the volcanoes Chimborazo and Cotopaxi in cross-section, with detailed information on plant geography. The observations Humboldt made on Chimborazo more than 200 years ago have been used to document climate change. Wikimedia Commons

His mother’s death left him with a fortune large enough to finance his scientific adventures, and in 1799 he traveled to Latin America to satisfy his curiosity about, well, everything. “I will collect plants and animals, measure the temperature, the elasticity, the magnetic and electric content of the atmosphere, dissect them, determine geographical longitudes and latitudes, measure mountains,” he wrote to his bankers. “But this is not the main purpose of my journey. My real and only purpose will be to investigate the interconnected and interweaving forces of nature, and to see how the inanimate natural world exerts its influence on animals and plants.”

He brought six bullock carts full of scientific instruments and set about measuring everything from the curvature of the earth to the blueness of the sky. Lured by the unknown, Humboldt explored the rainforests of Venezuela, the high Andes of Ecuador and Peru, the ancient ruins and the modern economy of Mexico. At the age of 30, Humboldt undertook his first major expedition, a 1,725-kilometer exploration of Venezuela’s Upper Orinoco River, starting in February 1800. He set off from the coast in a large canoe with a dog, his great friend and collaborator Bonpland, and a crew of native paddlers. For 75 days, the travelers lived on rice, ants, cassava, river water and the occasional monkey. Humboldt returned with a detailed map of the river—including confirmation of its connection to the Amazon basin—and the tale of another scientific brush with death.

To satisfy his curiosity about the biology of electric eels, Humboldt had persuaded villagers to collect hundreds of them, which they achieved by trampling wild horses into the river. The eels released their electrical charges on the horses (some of whom drowned in the melee) so the villagers could scoop the tortured eels into Humboldt’s canoe with long sticks until the wet floor of the canoe wriggled with them. When Humboldt touched the highly charged water collected in the hull, he received a shock so severe that it left him unconscious for several hours. The moment he came to, he asked for a pen and paper to record the details of his physiological ailment.

After a stay in Cuba, he and Bonpland went on a nine-month, 1,300-mile trek through the Andes, climbing Pichincha (15,696 feet) and nearly summiting Chimborazo, before continuing to Peru in search of the Amazon’s headwaters. From Lima he sailed to Mexico and along the way recorded the northern current of cold water that now bears his name – the Humboldt Current.

Humboldt’s reports contained detailed descriptions of hundreds of plants and animals never before mentioned in the scientific literature. His work contributed to advances in many fields, including geology, geography, archaeology, biology, zoology, and oceanography. He extended practical science from mere description to examination.

Humboldt and Bonpland in an oil painting by Eduard Ender, 1856. Wikimedia Commons

To make sense of his prodigious notes—which included tens of thousands of astronomical, geological, and meteorological observations—Humboldt began connecting data points with lines, a technique he called isotherms that we still use today. When we look at modern weather and topographic maps, we look at Humboldt’s isotherms.

His writings inspired world-changing thinkers, among them Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Darwin. His findings and scientific writings sparked the dreams and imaginations of many future scientists, geographers, naturalists, explorers and environmentalists. “How intensely I want to be a Humboldt,” said Muir in his 20s, whose copies of Humboldt’s books, heavily annotated with notes in the margins, are on display at the University of the Pacific in California. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last important work, Eureka: A Prose Poem to Humboldt, and Walt Whitman kept one of his volumes on his desk while composing Leaves of grass.

Humboldt’s influence also crossed into the political sphere; on his return from Spanish America in 1804, he stopped in Washington to meet US President Thomas Jefferson, who called him “the most important scientist that I have met.” None other than Simón Bolívar called him the real discoverer of the New World.

In the 19th century, it was still possible for a highly intelligent individual to grasp the entirety of scientific knowledge because each discipline had not yet splintered into separate domains of ever-growing detail. Humboldt’s contemporary, the German writer, statesman and intellectual Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said of Humboldt: “He knew everything and knew everything thoroughly.”

A detail from Humboldt’s South American diaries. He started the 4,000-page journal in German and later switched to French, with marginal notes in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek and English. Staatsbibliothek Berlin

Of all Humboldt’s contributions to the sciences, perhaps the most significant was his ability to see different disciplines as part of a whole. By describing the disastrous effects of clearing and monoculture in colonial plantations in Venezuela in the 1800s, Humboldt became the first scientist to write about the potential for anthropogenic climate change. “Humboldt was the first to explain the ability of the forest to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion.” Andrea Wulf wrote in the Atlantic. “When nature is perceived as a net, its vulnerability also becomes apparent. Everything is connected. If one thread is pulled, the entire wallpaper can be torn up.”

Although he is best known for his travels in South America, Humboldt continued his scientific explorations throughout his life. In 1829, at the age of 60, he set out on a 10,000 kilometer expedition to the far corners of Russia and returned as restless as ever. “I have seen a lot, but measured by my requirements it is very little,” he reflected on the day before his 75th birthday. He continued to write and publish until a few weeks before his death in Berlin on May 6, 1859. He was 89.

On the centenary of his birth, September 14, 1869, The New York Times devoted the entire front page to the celebration of his life, and thousands gathered for the unveiling of his bust in Central Park. Although his fame has since faded, his name lives on. More than 100 animals, 300 plant species and an asteroid are named in his honor, not to mention mountain ranges, universities and 13 cities in North America alone. His legacy remains in all of us who view the health of the environment as intrinsically linked to our own well-being and survival as a species.

Words by Matt Hart with a September 2022 update by Jeff Moag.

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