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A. Von Humboldt

A. Von Humboldt



A. Von HumboldtHumboldt is to physical science what Goethe is to literature-the best representative of the nineteenth century. From the wide domain of Nature by direct observation he gathered a marvelous collection of facts, which he patiently arranged in a Cosmos by the versatility of his genius. He is justly called the father of Physical Geography. His poetic temperament and sweeping imagination gave him wider and deeper insight into Nature's working than the majority of scientists can attain.


Friedrich Heinrich Alexander Baron Von Humboldt was born of a noble family in Berlin on the 14th of September. 1769. He was a son of Major George Von Humboldt, who served as adjutant to the Duke of Brunswick in the Seven Years' War, and was afterwards Royal Chamberlain. His childhood was passed ill his parents' residence, in the castle of Tegel, a few miles from Berlin. At the age of seven he began to study languages, and from an early age showed fondness for natural sciences. He received lessons in botany from Willdenow, in Berlin. From his zeal in collecting and labeling specimens he was called "the little apothecary." In 1786 he entered the University of Frankfort on the Oder, where he studied political economy and various sciences. Removing in 1788 to Gottingen, he bad for teachers Blumcobach, Eichhorn and Heyne, and studied anatomy, physiology, etc. Ht!re he formed an intimate friendship with George Forster, the eminent traveler and naturalist, who accompanied Captain Cook in his second voyage.


Having inherited from his father an ample fortune, Humboldt was able to devote his time to science. Geology and mineralogy he learned from ,Werner one of the earliest investigators of the crust of the earth. In 1790, in company with George Forster, Humboldt traveled in France, Holland and England to explore the geology of those countries. In 1792 he was appointed director-general of the mines of Anspach and Baireuth, and he published a work on subterranean plants. In order to gratify his passion for travel and the study of Nature, which he calls a free domain," he resigned his office of director in 1795. At Vienna he stopped to study, and then made a geological and botanical tour in Switzerland. At Weimar he formed a friendship with Goethe. Attracted by the researches of Galvani, he produced in 1797 Experiments of Muscular and Nervous Irritation.


From early youth Humboldt had cherished the desire of visiting remote and unexplored regions, and after the death of his mother, in 1796, he felt free to follow his bent. In 1798 he went to Paris to prepare for a journey to Upper Egypt, but this project was frustrated by the wars consequent on the French Revolution. Yet his visit enabled him to form a friendship with the botanist, Aim Bonpland, who became his companion in a journey to Spain. They arrived at Madrid in March, 1799, and procured passports for South America, which was their further destination. Sailing from Corunna in June, 1799, they landed at Cumana in Jul y, and at once began to collect plants of that vicinity. In the following spring they performed a long voyage in a canoe. Passing through regions infested with jaguars, crocodiles, mosquitoes, and tribes of savages, Humboldt narrowly escaped death. The party reached Angostura all the 13th of June, having in seventy-five days performed a passage of five hundred leagues all the five great rivers Apure, Orinoco, Atabapo, Rio Negro and Cassiquiare. In the next year the explorers visited Colombia, and ascended the Magdalena by boat to Honda, and in June, 1802, they ascended Mount Chimbomzo to a point 19,200 feet above the level of the sea, and about 1650 feet from the summit. It was then supposed to be the highest peak in America. Turning northward, Humboldt's party explored Mexico in 1803, paying particular attention to the volcanoes. They reached Philadelphia in June, 1804, and returned to Europe in August. They had secured rich collections of animal", plants and minerals, whose value Humboldt's genius was to prove.


After his return Humboldt spent about twenty years in Paris in arranging and studying his collections, and in composing the books which made known his travels, discoveries and observations to the world. In This arduous task he was assisted by the ablest scientists of the time, Bonpland, Arago, Cuvier, Gay-Lussac, Kunth, and other!. Paris was a Congenial place of residence, as he was a man of liberal thought.


One of his first publications was the interesting and admirable Aspects of Nature 1808. With his assistants he published in French A Journey to lite Equinoctial Regions of the new continent 1814, which has been pronounced "the finest book of travels ever written;Views of the Cordilleras and monuments of the Aborigines of America 1810. A Political Essay On the Kingdom of New Spain 1811. In 1817 appeared his important work, On the Geographical Distribution of Plants According to the Temperature and Altitude. In this he first delineated isothermal lines. Several botanical and astronomical works by other authors were based on his researches.


Humboldt was elected a member of the French Institute, and as a member of the Society of Arcueil a village some three miles from Paris he associated with the scientists Biot, Gay-Lussac, Thenard, De Candolle, Berthollet and Malus. His own peerless scientific reputation caused his services to be sought by the sovereigns of Europe. The first demand came from his own country. At the urgent request of King Frederic William III, Humboldt returned to Berlin in 1826, was appointed a councilor, and delivered lectures in the University. By invitation of the Czar of Russia, Humboldt, Ehrenberg and Rose explored Asiatic Russia in 1829_ Between 1830 and r848 he was also sent to Paris on several diplomatic missions. When he was over seventy-two years old he composed in German his great work entitled, Cosmos: an Essay of a Physical Description of the Universe 5 vols. 1845-1858. This remarkable book was a fitting summary of his life-work, and all Europe acknowledged that he was the man best fitted by natural endowments, by scientific culture, by extensive travel and observation, by c1carne!;S and precision of thought, and by mastery of style, to accomplish such an undertaking. Humboldt died in Berlin all the 6th of May, 1859. He was never married. Goethe once remarked of the great scientific traveler, "I may say he has not his equal in knowledge, in living wisdom."





It has not infrequently happened that the researches made at remote distances have often and unexpectedly thrown light upon subject; which had long resisted the attempt made to explain them within the narrow limits of out own sphere of observation. Organic forms that had long remained isolated, both in the animal and vegetable kingdom, have been connected by the discovery of intermediate links of transition. The geography of being endowed with life attains completeness as we see the species, genera, and entire families belonging to one hemisphere reflected, as it were, in the analogous animal and vegetable forms of the opposite hemisphere. They are, so to speak, the equivalents which mutually person ate and replace one another in the great series of organisms. These connecting links and stages of transition may be traced alternately in a deficiency or an excess of development of certain parts, in the mode of junction of distinct organs, in the difference of the balance of forces, or in a resemblance to immediate forms which are not permanent, but characteristic of certain phases of normal development.


Passing from the consideration of beings endowed with life to that of inorganic bodies, we find many striking illustrations of the high state of advancement to which modern geology has attained. We thus see, according to the grand views of Elie de Beaumont, how chains of mountains dividing different climates and floras and different races of men, reveal to us their relative age, both by the character of the sedimentary strata they have uplifted, and but the directions which they follow over the long fissures with which the earth's crust is furrowed. Relations of super-positions of trachyte and of syenitic porphyry, of diorite and of serpentine, which remain doubtful when considered in the auriferous son of Hungary, in the rich platinum districts of the Ural, and on the southwestern declivity of the Siberian Altai, are elucidated by the observations made on the plateaus of Mexico and Autioquia, and in the unhealthy ravines of Choes. The important facts on which the physical history of the world has been based in modern times, have not been accumulated by chance.


A more accurate knowledge of the connection of physical phenomena will also tend to remove the prevalent error that all branches of natural science are not equally important in relation to general cultivation and industrial progress. An arbitrary distinction is frequently made between the various degrees of importance appertaining to mathematical sciences, to the study of organized beings, the knowledge of electromagnetism, and investigations of the general properties of matter in its different conditions of molecular aggregation; and it is not uncommon presumptuously to affix a supposed stigma upon researches of this nature, by terming them "purely theoretical," forgetting that in the observation of a phenomenon which at first sight appears to be wholly isolate, may be concealed the germ of a great discovery.


When Galvani first stimulated the nervous fiber by the accidental contact of two heterogeneous metals, bis contemporaries could never have anticipated that the action of the voltaic pile would discover to us, in their alkalies, metals of a silvery luster, so light as to swim on water, and highly inflammable; or that it would become a powerful instrument of chemical analysis, and at the same time a thermos cope and a magnet. When Huygens first observed, in 1678, the phenomenon of the polarization of light, exhibited in the difference of the two rays into which a pencil of light divides itself in passing through a doubly refracting crystal, it could not have been foreseen that a century and a half later the great philosopher Arago would, by his discovery of chromatic polarization, be led to discern, by means of a small fragment of Iceland spar, whether solar light emanates from a solid body or a gaseous covering; or whether comets transmit light directly or merely by refection.


An equal appreciation of all branches of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences is a special requirement of the present age in which the material wealth and the growing prosperity of nations are principally based upon a more enlightened employment of the product and forces of nature. The most superficial glance at the present condition of Europe shows that a diminution or even a total annihilation of national prosperity must be the award of those states who shrink with slothful indifference from the great struggle of rival nations in the career of industrial arts. It is with nations as with nature, which, according to Goethe, "knows no pause in progress and in development, and attaches her curse on all inaction. Man cannot act upon nature, or appropriate her forces to his own use, without comprehending their full extent, and having an intimate acquaintance with the laws of the physical world. Bacon has said that, in human societies, knowledge is power. Both must rise and sink together. But the knowledge which results from the free action of thought is at once the delight and the indestructible prerogative of man; and in fanning part of the wealth of man. ind, it not infrequently serves as a substitute for the natural riches which are but sparingly scattered over the earth. Those states which take no part in the general industrial movement, in the choice and preparation of natural substances, or in the application of mechanics and chemistry, and in whom this activity is not appreciated by all classes of society, will infallibly see their prosperity diminish in pro-portion as neighboring countries become strengthened and invigorated under the genial influence of arts and sciences. -A. VON HUMBOLDT.


A. Von Humboldt

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