Humboldt was born into a noble family in
The household was marred by his mother’s “cold and aloof” nature. A private tutor educated Humboldt and his brother, Wilhelm, who turned out to be a distinguished economist with worldwide fame as well that lives to this day. Humboldt never married but derived great joy from friendships with colleagues and others and also from his brother’s friendly household. In 1792 he joined the mining department of the Prussian Government and promotion came quickly given his brilliance and dedication.
Humboldt sailed from A Coruna,
This bifurcation, known as the
It was a tremendously dangerous environment with alligators, jaguars and swarms of biting insects, aside from numerous uncontacted tribes that are today recognized as the Yanomami. At times he and his traveling companion, botanist Aime Bonpland, had no food, and conditions were almost unbearable. Still isolated, still unwelcoming, still undeveloped, this wild region is little changed today.
Humboldt and Bonpland collected over 60,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens and still found the time to study electricity. They were the first Europeans to discover an animal that produces electricity: Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel.
To obtain electric eels for carrying out tests, he and his helpers drove about 30 horses into an eel-infested lake, trapping the horses there to be shocked repeatedly until the frantic eels exhausted themselves and posed little danger to the humans. Two tormented horses drowned in the first five minutes. They were vindicated somewhat when a not-quite-exhausted eel later shocked Humboldt. In fact, Humboldt freely subjected his own body to agonizing electrical experiments, including gripping an eel in one hand and a piece of metal in the other to expand the electric charge.
Humboldt´s explorations in the
Humboldt established the use of isotherms in map-making, studied the origin and course of tropical storms, and made pioneer investigations in the relationship between geographic environment and plant distribution. He measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, over the objections of Von Humboldt himself, is also known as the Humboldt Current. He made observations leading to the discovery of meteor shower periodicity, and examined the fertilizing properties of guano. His review of the political and historical characteristics of
Humboldt once said, “devoted from my earliest youth to the study of nature, feeling with enthusiasm the wild beauties of a country guarded by mountains and shaded by ancient forests, I have experienced in my travels, enjoyments which have amply compensated for the privations inseparable from a laborious and often agitated life.”
Another notable quote from Humboldt is, “One of the noblest characteristics which distinguish modern civilization from that of remoter times is, that it has enlarged the mass of our conceptions, rendered us more capable of perceiving the connection between the physical and intellectual world, and thrown a more general interest over objects which heretofore occupied only a few scientific men, because those objects were contemplated separately, and from a narrower point of view.”
In his time, von Humboldt was an explorer and scientist of incomparable renown, and his work largely inspired Charles Darwin and influenced the course of a number of scientific disciplines. Humboldt’s Cosmos, a biography written by Gerard Helferich, retraces the 1799-1804 odyssey of von Humboldt through Central and
Humboldt became an international celebrity after he self-published a sequence of publications about his travels in the
As the first biologist to draw attention to the unifying aspects of the physical world, von Humboldt can be considered the first conservationist to support ecological balance, a concept that was at variance with mainstream science’s view of a “chaotic world” and preoccupation with specialization. Besides being
During the final years of his long life Humboldt wrote a five-volume work, Kosmos (The Cosmos, 1845-1862) in which he described not only his infinite scientific knowledge but also most of the accumulated scientific knowledge of geography and geology at the time. Kosmos has been called the first textbook of geophysics. Humboldt died in