Humboldt, Alexander, Freiherr von

Humboldt, Alexander, Freiherr von hŭm´bōlt, Ger. älĕksän´dər frī´hĕr fən ho͝om´bôlt [key], 1769–1859, German naturalist and explorer, the most eminent scientist of his time. His full name is Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. Educated at Göttingen, he also studied at Hamburg, Freiberg, and Jena and made several scientific excursions in Europe. In 1792 he was appointed assessor of mines in Berlin. From 1799 to 1804 he made 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, and investigated the fertilizing properties of guano. He was also the first scientist to realize the importance of forests to the earth's ecosystem. 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, 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. Later, Humboldt was an important influence on such groups as American transcendentalists, English romantics, international environmentalists, as well as on the travels and works of Charles Darwin . Towns and geographical features throughout the Americas, Germany, and the English-speaking world are named for Humboldt as are more than 300 plants and 100 animals.

See biography by C. Kellner (1963) 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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