The Prussian naturalist (1769-1859) inspired Darwin to take the voyage on The Beagle, bringing all 9 volumes of his writings on board to accompany his journey throughout South America. When he died, his funeral in Berlin went on for weeks, newspapers covered his achievements for months, tens of thousands of fans besieged Berlin paying homage to his achievement. And he spawned untold faithfulness from Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, John Muir (American naturalist founder of U.S. National Parks, Preservationist) & Fredrick Law Olmstead, father of Central Park NYC.
von Humboldt is every child digging in the sand, on the beach or drawing wild flowers.
With the Balkanization of the sciences, two World Wars devoted to halting German expansion dimmed our vision of how Germania wrought this astonishing man forward to jungles, rivers, fauna and fowl in far away exotic places.
How did that happen?
von Humboldt was born at a time when the social impact of the industrial revolution was beginning; like Alexander Hamilton, von Humboldt implicitly understood how the boring of steel for rifles or train tracks would change social relations, ushering in social mobility impacting aristocratic classes in rigid societies. Like Alexis Tocqueville, von Humboldt grasped early on that virtue held to industriousness would procure untold talent. The man never stopped traveling, discovering, exploring and writing.
Throughout his life he tried to escape the suffocating confines of his mother, yet he was torn not to abandon her. After university he acquired a job in the Prussian mines, bringing him into contact with the father of geology, the Scottish James Hutton (d. 1797). As a child he loved the explorations of Spanish conquistadors and circumnavigators like Louis Antoine de Bougainville. But it was not until his mothers death of cancer in 1796, at the age of 27, that he was free. He NEVER attended her funeral.
He immediately abandoned his career with the Prussian civil service and began planning a great voyage. He settled for South America. He told King Carlos IV of Spain that he conceived of the entire Earth as a living organism, he aspired to tackle cloud structures, insect and specimen behavior, rivers, temperatures and geography throughout the Spanish kingdom. King Carlos gave him a colonial passport running to explore Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Peru discovering the magnetic equator along with new plants, animals and minerals. He brought home to Germania electric eels to experiment with electricity. His contacts with indigenous tribes was voluminous. The 34 volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent was published, much to the ire of imperial rivals in Paris or London.
Climbing the Chimborazo volcano at 17,000 feet we see him crawling a two inch wide ridge during winter to outline geography of South America. This map, with its notations is pictured above. With disintegrating shoes he continues barefoot with his companion Aime Bonpland.
After a 5 year journey throughout South America, he landed in Washington D.C. in 1804 entertaining President Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, perhaps the only man who matches von Humboldt's temperament.
Having arrived in Washington, he advises Jefferson on Texas (at the time it was Mexico), but von Humboldt convinced Jefferson that its savanna's and water routes were worth fighting Mexico.
While flying the Beagle toward South America, Darwin read Personal Narrative to discover von Humboldt's writings regarding natural selection. The word would be coined by Darwin, Humboldt wrote that animals "limit each other's numbers' through long continued contest for nourishment and territory." The Origin of Species has its patrimony with Humboldt's work, mostly written while journeying throughout South America.
His accomplishments exerted a profound influence with Goethe, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor, Coleridge, Flaubert, Pushkin, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound and too many other writers, composers to mention. His impact is immeasurable.
He was also a huge influence on Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Darwin, Henry James Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Washington Irving.
Humboldt's Original Drawings, Cambridge University, Haddon Library (drawings on bottom of webpage)http://haddon.archanth.cam.ac.uk/haddon-specials/library-online/blandowskipublscans/
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf
Andrea Wulf Twitter http://@andrea_wulf
Personal Webpage http://www.andreawulf.com/
Books by and about Humboldt at AMAZON