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Humboldt, Alexander, Freiherr von

Humboldt, Alexander, Freiherr von hŭm´bōlt, Ger. älĕksän´dər frī´hĕr fən ho͝om´bôlt [key], 1769–1859, German naturalist, inventor, explorer, and author, the most eminent scientist of his time. His full name is Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. Born into a wealthy family, he was educated at Göttingen, also studied at Hamburg, Freiberg, and Jena, and made several scientific excursions in Europe. In 1792 he was appointed assessor of mines in Berlin; during this five-year period he opened a miners' school, invented an improved respirator, and wrote a book on underground plants.

Funded by Charles IV of Spain, he made from 1799 to 1804 his renowned expedition with A. J. A. Bonpland to Central and South America and Cuba, a journey that did much to lay the foundations for the sciences of physical geography and meteorology. The major ocean current off S America, which was studied by Humboldt, once carried his name, but is now called the Peru Current. He ascended peaks in the Peruvian Andes to study the relation of temperature and altitude, traveled and mapped the Upper Orinoco to its junction with a tributary of the Amazon, discovered the magnetic equator, made observations leading to the discovery of meteor shower periodicity, investigated the fertilizing properties of guano, and collected some 60,000 plant specimens. He was also the first scientist to realize the importance of forests to the earth's ecosystem and the dangers of deforestation. In 1808 he settled in Paris and published the findings of his New World expedition in Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland (23 vol., 1805–1834), often cited by the title of Part I, Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent.

Humboldt established the use of isotherms in map making; studied the origin and course of tropical storms, the increase in magnetic intensity from the equator toward the poles, and volcanology; and made pioneer investigations on the relationship between geographical environment and plant distribution. In 1827 he settled in his native Berlin at the request of the Prussian king. His interest in terrestrial magnetism led him to effect one of the first instances of international scientific cooperation, by forming a system of meteorological stations throughout Russia and the British colonies. In 1829, Humboldt made an expedition to Russia and Siberia. In his final work, the best-selling Kosmos (5 vol., 1845–1862; tr. 1849–1858), he sought to combine the vague ideals of the 18th cent. with the exact scientific requirements of the 19th cent. and to formulate a concept of unity amid the complexity of nature.

Humboldt was an important influence on such groups as the English romantics and the American transcendentalists and on the travels and works of Charles Darwin . As the Romantic era gave way to the Victorian period and science became increasingly specialized, Humboldt's works fell into disuse, and he himself became more of a footnote than the seminal figure he had once been. More recently, however, he has won recognition as pioneering environmentalist. Towns and geographical features throughout the Americas, Germany, and the English-speaking world have been named for Humboldt as have more than 300 plants and 100 animals.

See biographies by C. Kellner (1963) and N. Rupke (2008); D. Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (1973); L. D. Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009); A. Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (2015).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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