On June 23, 1802, Alexander von Humboldt was three years into his South American scientific expedition when he attempted to climb the Andean peak Chimborazo. At the time the 20,564-foot peak in what is now Ecuador was considered to be the highest mountain in the world (a claim recently thrown back into contention by scientists measuring from the center of the earth).
No one had ever summited the mountain. Their local porters, who thought the mission to climb the peak was suicide, abandoned them at snow line. Well-equipped for the time, ill-equipped for the goal, and encumbered by scientific equipment, Humboldt and three colleagues continued their ascent, at times crawling over knife-ridge sections on all fours. They were eventually turned back by a loss of mental acuity caused by the lack of oxygen and a 60-foot crevasse they could envision no way around. However, the group set a new mountaineering altitude record, reaching 19,400 feet, a mark that stood unbeaten for the next 30 years.
It was on this trip, on the slopes of Chimborazo, as the clouds occasioned a view of the surrounding landscape, that Humboldt was struck by his revolutionary conviction–that the world was a single, web-like, interconnected organism.
Humboldt’s ideas on the natural world were a revelation. He wrote so prodigiously upon return that he later admitted to losing track of exactly how many books he’d written. His influence was worldwide. Scientists from Paris to Harvard wrote that they “all owed their rise to him.” To this day, we see his name on maps–he has mountain ranges, glaciers, bays, waterfalls, rivers, currents, counties, and states named in his honor.
Humbolt was born in Berlin in 1769 to a prominent and wealthy Prussian family and began exploring his natural surroundings at an early age. He was pushed academically by his precocious older brother, Wilhelm. As a young man, to appease his mother, he studied mining, and for a time was a practicing geologist. Virtually self-taught, Humboldt published his first book, on photosynthesis, when he was 23 years old. Four years later he published a two-volume book on the effects of galvanism on muscles. For this book he took to self-experimentation, attaching electrodes to open wounds in his back and charging himself with electrical current to see what would happen.
His mother’s death left him with a large enough inheritance to self-finance his scientific adventures. He set out for Latin America, writing, “I shall endeavor to find how nature’s forces act upon one another.” To do so he brought with him six oxcarts worth of scientific instruments. With these tools he set about measuring everything he could, from the altitude to the blueness of the sky. Lured by the unknown, Humboldt explored the rain forests of Venezuela and paddled crocodile-infested tropical rivers, including mapping and exploring the Orinoco River. He then continued on a nine-month, 1,300-mile trek through the Andes, climbing volcanoes along the way.
Humboldt’s reports included species that had never before been mentioned in the scientific literature. They contributed to the advancement of many fields, including geology, geography, archaeology, biology, zoology, and oceanography. He broadened practiced science from mere description to examination.
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, which we still use today. When we look at modern weather and topographic maps, we are looking at Humboldt’s isotherms.
His findings and scientific writings sparked the dreams and imaginations of many future scientists, geographers, naturalists, explorers, and environmentalist. His writings were essential ingredients for world-changing thinkers like Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir.
Darwin took a copy of his books on his five-year journey on the Beagle, where he conceived evolution. “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt,” said Muir in his 20s, who left copies of Humboldt’s books, heavily annotated with notes in the margins, which are now on display at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.
In the 19th century it was still possible for a highly intelligent individual to grasp the whole of scientific knowledge because each discipline had not yet splintered off into separate domains of ever increasing minutiae. Humboldt’s contemporary, German writer, statesman, and intellectual Johann Wolfgang Goethe said of Humboldt, “He knew everything, and knew everything thoroughly.”
Humboldt continued writing until a few weeks before his death in Berlin on May 6, 1859. He was 89. On the centennial of his birth, September 14, 1869, The New York Times devoted the entire front page to the celebration of his life. His name endures. Humboldt has more than 100 animals, 300 plant species, and even an asteroid named after him, not to mention 13 towns in North America alone. His legacy remains in all of us that consider the health of the environment inherently connected to our own wellness and survival as a species.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia
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