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Alexander Von Humboldt
Humboldt--Alexander Von Humboldt, as he always called himself, though he was christened with the names of Frederick Heinrich Alexander--was born in 1769, on September 14th, in that memorable year which gave to the world those philosophers, warriors, and statesmen who have changed the face of science and the condition of affairs in our century. It was in that year that Cuvier also and Schiller were born; and among the warriors and statesmen, Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, and Canning are children of 1769, and it is certainly a year of which we can say that its children have revolutionized the world. Of the early life of Humboldt I know nothing, and I find no records except that in his tenth year he lost his father, who had been a major in the army during the seven years' war, and afterward a chamberlain to the King of Prussia. But his mother took excellent care of him, and watched over his early education. The influence she had upon his life is evident from the fact that, notwithstanding his yearning for the sight of foreign lands, he did not begin to make active preparations for his travels during her lifetime. In the winter of 1787-1788 he was sent to the University of Frankfort on the Oder, to study finances. He was to be a statesman; he was to enter high offices, for which there was a fair chance, owing to his noble birth and the patronage he could expect at court. He remained, however, but a short time there.
Not finding these studies to his taste, after a semestre's residence in the university we find him again at Berlin, and there in intimate friendship with Wildenow, then professor of botany, and who at that time possessed the greatest herbarium in existence. Botany was the first branch of natural science to which Humboldt paid especial attention. The next year he went to Goettingen--being then a youth of twenty years; and here he studied natural history with Blumenbach, and thus had an opportunity of seeing the progress zooelogy was making in anticipation of the great movement by which Cuvier placed zooelogy on a new foundation.
For it is an unquestionable fact that in first presenting a classification of the animal kingdom based upon a knowledge of its structure, Blumenbach in a measure anticipated Cuvier; though it is only by an exaggeration of what Blumenbach did that an unfair writer of later times has attempted to deprive Cuvier of the glory of having accomplished this object upon the broadest possible basis. From Goettingen he visited the Rhine, for the purpose of studying geology, and in particular the basaltic formations of the Seven Mountains. At Mayence he became acquainted with George Forster, who proposed to accompany him on a journey to England. You may imagine what impression the conversation of that active, impetuous and powerful man had upon the youthful Humboldt. They went to Belgium and Holland, and thence to England, where Forster introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks. Thus the companions of Captain Cook in his first and second voyages round the world, who were already venerable in years and eminent promoters of physical science not yet established in the popular favor, were the early guides of Humboldt in his aspirations for scientific distinction. Yet Humboldt had a worldly career to accomplish. He was to be a statesman, and this required that he should go to the Academy of Commerce at Hamburg. He remained there five months, but could endure it no longer, and he begged so hard that his mother allowed him to go to Freyberg and study geology with Werner, with a view of obtaining a situation in the Administration of Mines. See what combinations of circumstances prepare him for his great career, as no other young man ever was prepared. At Freyberg he received the private instruction of Werner, the founder of modern geology, and he had as his fellow-student no less a man than Leopold Von Buch, then a youth, to whom, at a later period, Humboldt himself dedicated one of his works, inscribing it "to the greatest geologist," as he was till the day of his recent death. From Freyberg he made frequent excursions into the Hartz and Fichtelgeberg and surrounding regions, and these excursions ended in the publication of a small work upon the subterranean flora of Freyberg ("Flora Subterranea Fribergensis"), in which he described especially those cryptogamous plants, or singular low and imperfect formations which occur in the deep mines. But here ends his period of pupilage. In 1792 he was appointed an officer of the mines (Oberbergmeister). He went to Beyreuth as director of the operations in those mines belonging to the Frankish provinces of Prussia. Yet he was always wandering in every direction, seeking for information and new subjects of study. He visited Vienna, and there heard of the discoveries of Galvani, with which he made himself familiar; went to Italy and Switzerland, where he became acquainted with the then celebrated Professors Jurine and Pictet, and with the illustrious Scarpa. He also went to Jena, formed an intimate acquaintance with Schiller and Goethe, and also with Loder, with whom he studied anatomy. From that time he began to make investigations of his own, and these investigations were in a line which he has never approached since, being experiments in physiology. He turned his attention to the newly-discovered power by which he tested the activity of organic substances; and it is plain, from his manner of treating the subject, that he leaned to the idea that the chemical process going on in the living body of animals furnished a clew to the phenomena of life, if it was not life itself. This may be inferred from the title of the book published in 1797--"Ueber die gereizte Muskel und Nervenfaser, mit Vermuthungen ueber den chemischen Process des Lebens, in Thieren und Pflanzen."
In these explanations of the phenomena we have the sources of the first impulses in a direction which has been so beneficial in advancing the true explanation of the secondary phenomena of life; but which, at the same time, in its exaggeration as it prevails now has degenerated into the materialism of modern investigators.
In that period of all-embracing activity, he began to study astronomy. His attention was called to it by Baron Von Zach, who was a prominent astronomer of the time, and who at that time was actively engaged upon astronomical investigations in Germany. He showed Humboldt to what extent astronomy would be useful to him, in his travels, in determining the position of places, the altitude of mountains, etc.
So prepared, Humboldt now broods over his plans of foreign travel. He has published his work on the muscular and nervous fibre at the age of twenty-eight. He has lost his mother; and his mind is now inflamed with an ungovernable passion for the sight of foreign and especially tropical lands. He goes to Paris to make preparation by securing the best astronomical, meteorological and surveying instruments. Evidently he does not care where he shall go, for on a proposition of Lord Bristol to visit Egypt he agrees to it. The war prevents the execution of this plan, and he enters into negotiations to accompany the projected expedition of Captain Baudin to Australia; but when Bonaparte, bent on the conquest of Egypt, started with a scientific expedition, Humboldt wishes to join it. He expects to be one of the scientific party, and to reach Egypt by way of Barbary.
But all these plans failing, he goes to Spain with the view of exploring that country, and finding perhaps some means of joining the French expedition in Egypt from Spain. While in Madrid he is so well received at the court--a young nobleman so well instructed has access everywhere--and he receives such encouragement from persons in high positions, that he turns his thoughts to an exploration of the Spanish provinces of America. He receives permission not only to visit them, but instructions are given to the officers of the colonies to receive him everywhere and give him all facilities, to permit him to transport his instruments, to make astronomical and other observations, and to collect whatever he chooses; and all that only in consequence of the good impression he has made when he appeared there, with no other recommendation than that of a friend who happened to be at that time Danish minister to the court of Madrid. But with these facilities offered to him, he sails in June, 1799, from Corunna, whence he reaches Teneriffe, makes short explorations of that island, ascending the peak, and sailing straightway to America, where he lands in Cumana in the month of July, and employs the first year and a half in the exploration of the basin of the Orinoco and its connection with the Amazon. This was a journey of itself, and completed a work of scientific importance, establishing the fact that the two rivers were connected by an uninterrupted course of water. He established for the first time the fact that there was an extensive low plain, connected by water, which circled the high table-land of Guiana. It was an important discovery in physical geography, because it changed the ideas about water-courses and about the distributions of mountains and plains in a manner which has had the most extensive influence upon the progress of physical geography. It may well be said that after this exploration of the Orinoco, physical geography begins to appear as a part of science. From Cumana he makes a short excursion to Havana, and hearing there of the probable arrival of Baudin on the west coast of America, starts with the intention of crossing at Panama. He arrives at Carthagena, but was prevented by the advance of the season from crossing the Isthmus, and changed his determination from want of precise information respecting Baudin's locality. He determines to ascend the Magdalena River and visit Santa Fe de Bogota, where, for several months, he explores the construction of the mountains, and collects plants and animals; and, in connection with his friend, Bonpland, who accompanied him from Paris, he makes those immense botanical collections, which were afterward published by Bonpland himself, and by Kunth after Bonpland had determined on an expedition to South America. In the beginning of 1802 he reaches Quito, where, during four months, he turns his attention to everything worth investigating, ascends the Chimborazo, to a height to which no human foot had reached, anywhere; and, having completed this survey and repeatedly crossed the Andes, he descends the southern slope of the continent to the shore of the Pacific at Truxillo, and following the arid coast of Peru, he visits finally Lima.
I will pass lightly over all the details of his journey, for they are only incidents in that laborious exploration of the country which is best appreciated by a consideration of the works which were published in consequence of that immense accumulation of materials gathered during those explorations. From Lima, or rather from Callao, he sails in 1802 for Guayaquil and Acapulco, and reaches Mexico in 1803, where he makes as extensive explorations as he had made in Venezuela and the Andes, and after a stay of about a year, and having put all his collections and manuscripts in order, revisits Cuba for a short time, comes to the United States, makes a hurried excursion to Philadelphia and Washington, where he is welcomed by Jefferson, and finally returns with his faithful companion Bonpland to France, accompanied by a young Spanish nobleman, Don Carlo de Montufar, who had shared his travels since his visits to Quito.
At thirty-six years of age Humboldt is again in Europe with collections made in foreign lands, such as had never been brought together before. But here we meet with a singular circumstance. The German nobleman, the friend of the Prussian and Spanish courts, chooses Paris for his residence, and remains there twenty-two years to work out the result of his scientific labor; for since his return, with the exception of short journeys to Italy, England and Germany, sometimes accompanying the King of Prussia, sometimes alone, or accompanied by scientific friends, he is entirely occupied in scientific labors and studies. So passes the time to the year 1827, and no doubt he was induced to make this choice of a residence by the extraordinary concourse of distinguished men in all branches of science with whom he thought he could best discuss the results of his own observations. I shall presently have something to say about the works he completed during that most laborious period of his life. I will only add now, that in 1827 he returned to Berlin permanently, having been urged of late by the King of Prussia again and again to return to his native land. And there he delivered a series of lectures preparatory to the publication of "Cosmos;" for in substance, even in form and arrangement, these lectures, of which the papers of the day gave short accounts, are a sort of prologue to the "Cosmos," and a preparation for its publication. In 1829, when he was sixty years of age, he undertakes another great journey. He accepts the invitation of the Emperor Nicholas to visit the Ural Mountains, with a view of examining the gold mines, and localities where platina and diamonds had been found, to determine their geological relation. He accomplished the journey with Ehrenberg and Gustavus Rose, who published the result of their mineralogical and geological survey, in a work of which he is the sole author; while Humboldt published under the title of "Asiatic Fragments of Geology and Climatology," his observations of the physical and geographical features made during that journey. But he had hardly returned to Berlin when in consequence of the revolution of 1830, he was sent by the King of Prussia as extraordinary ambassador to France, to honor the elevation of Louis Philippe to the throne. Humboldt had long been a personal friend of the Orleans family, and he was selected ambassador on that occasion on account of these personal relations. From 1830 to 1848 he lived alternately in Berlin and in Paris, spending nearly half the time in Paris and half the time in Berlin, with occasional visits to England and Denmark; publishing the results of his investigations in Asia, making original investigations upon various things and especially pressing the establishment of observatories, and connected magnetic observations all over the globe, for which he obtained the co-operation of the Russian government and that of the government of England; and at that time those observations in Australia and in the Russian empire to the borders of China, were established which have led to such important results in our knowledge of terrestrial magnetism. Since 1848 he has lived uninterruptedly in Berlin, where he published on the anniversary of his eightieth year a new edition of those charming first flowers of his pen; his "Views of Nature," the first edition of which was published in Germany in 1808. This third edition appeared with a series of new and remodelled annotations and explanations; and that book in which he first presented his views of nature, in which he drew those vivid pictures of the physiognomy of plants and of their geographical distribution is now revived and brought to the present state of science.
The "Views of Nature" is a work which Humboldt has always cherished, and to which in his "Cosmos" he refers more frequently than to any other work. It is no doubt because there he has expressed his deepest thoughts, his most impressive views, and even foreshadowed those intimate convictions which he never expressed, but which he desired to record in such a manner that those that can read between the lines might find them there; and certainly there we find them. His aspiration has been to present to the world a picture of the physical world from which he would exclude everything that relates to the turmoil of human society, and to the ambitions of individual men. A life so full, so rich, is worth explaining in every respect, and it is really instructive to see with what devotion he pursues his work. As long as he is a student he is really a student and learns faithfully, and learns everything he can reach. And he continues so for twenty-three years. He is not one of those who is impatient to show that he has something in him, and with premature impatience utters his ideas, so that they become insuperable barriers to his independent progress in later life. Slowly and confident of his sure progress, he advances, and while he learns he studies also independently of those who teach him. He makes his experiments, and to make them with more independence he seeks for an official position. During five years he is a business man, in a station which gives him leisure. He is superintendent of the mines, but the superintendent of the mines who can do much as he pleases; and while he is thus officially engaged journeying and superintending, he prepares himself for his independent researches. And yet it will be seen he is thirty years of age before he enters upon his American travels--those travels which will be said to have been the greatest undertaking ever carried to a successful issue, if judged by the results; they have as completely changed the basis of physical science as the revolution which took place in France about the same time has changed the social condition of that land. Having returned from these travels to Paris, there begins in his life a period of concentrated critical studies. He works his materials, and he works them with an ardor and devotion which are untiring; and he is not anxious to appear to have done it all himself. Oltmann is called to his aid to revise his astronomical observations, and his barometrical measurements by which he has determined the geographical position of seven hundred different points and the altitude of more than four hundred and fifty of them.
The large collection of plants which Bonpland had begun to illustrate, but of which his desire of seeing the tropics again has prevented the completion he intrusts to Kunth. He has also brought home animals of different classes, and distributes them among the most eminent zooelogists of the day.
To Cuvier he intrusts the investigation of that remarkable batrachian, the Aaeolotel, the mode of development of which is still unknown, but which remains in its adult state in a condition similar to that of the tadpole of the frog during the earlier period of its life. Latreille describes the insects, and Valenciennes the shells and the fishes; but yet to show that he might have done the work himself, he publishes a memoir on the anatomical structure of the organs of breathing in the animals he has preserved, and another upon the tropical monkeys of America, and another upon the electric properties of the electric eel. But he was chiefly occupied with investigations in physical geography and climatology. The first work upon that subject is a dissertation on the geographical distribution of plants, published in 1817. Many botanist travellers had observed that in different parts of the world there are plants not found in others, and that there is a certain arrangement in that distribution; but Humboldt was the first to see that this distribution is connected with the temperature of the air as well as with the altitudes of the surface on which they grow, and he systematized his researches into a general exposition of the laws by which the distribution of plants is regulated. Connected with this subject he made those extensive investigations into the mean temperature of a large number of places on the surface of the globe, which led to the drawing of those isothermal lines so important in their influence in shaping physical geography, and giving accuracy to the mode of representing natural phenomena. Before Humboldt we had no graphic representation of complex natural phenomena which made them easily comprehensible, even to minds of moderate cultivation. He has done that in a way which has circulated information more extensively, and brought it to the apprehension more clearly than it could have been done by any other means.
It is not too much to say that this mode of representing natural phenomena has made it possible to introduce in our most elementary works the broad generalizations derived from the investigations of Humboldt in South America; and that every child in our schools has his mind fed from the labors of Humboldt's brain, wherever geography is no longer taught in the old routine.
Humboldt was born near the court. He was brought up in connection with courtiers and men in high positions of life. He was no doubt imbued with the prejudices of his caste. He was a nobleman of high descent. And yet the friend of kings was the bosom friend of Arago, and he was the man who could, after his return from America, refuse the highest position at the court of Berlin, that of the secretaryship of public instruction, preferring to live in a modest way in Paris, in the society of all those illustrious men, who then made Paris the centre of intellectual culture. It was there where he became one of that Societe d'Arceuil, composed of all the great men of the day, to which the paper on "Isothermal Lines" was presented, and by which it was printed, as all papers presented to it were, for private distribution. But from his intimate relations, especially to the court of Prussia, some insinuations have been made as to the character of Humboldt. They are as unjust as they are severe in expression. He was never a flatterer of those in power. He has shown it by taking a prominent position, in 1848, at the head of those who accompanied the victims of the revolution of that year to their last place of rest. But while he expressed his independence in such a manner, he had the kindliest feeling for all parties. He could not offend, even by an expression, those with whom he had been associated in early life; and I have no doubt that it is to that kindliness of feeling we must ascribe his somewhat indiscriminate patronage of aspirants in science, as well as men who were truly devoted to its highest aims. He may be said to have been, especially in his latter years, the friend of every cultivated man, wishing to lose no opportunity to do all the good of which he was capable; for he had a degree of benevolence and generosity which was unbounded. I can well say that there is not a man engaged in scientific investigations in Europe, who has not received at his hands marked tokens of his favor, and who is not under deep obligations to him. May I be permitted to tell a circumstance which is personal to me in that respect, and which shows what he was capable of doing while he was forbidden an opportunity of telling it. I was only twenty-four years of age when in Paris, whither I had gone with means given me by a friend; but was at last about to resign my studies from want of ability to meet my expenses. Professor Mitscherlich was then on a visit to Paris, and I had seen him in the morning, when he asked me what was the cause of my depressed feelings; and I told him that I had to go for I had nothing left. The next morning as I was seated at breakfast in front of the yard of the hotel where I lived, I saw the servant of Humboldt approach. He handed me a note, saying there was no answer and disappeared. I opened the note, and I see it now before me as distinctly as if I held the paper in my hand. It said:--
"My friend, I hear that you intend leaving Paris in consequence of some embarrassments. That shall not be. I wish you to remain here as long as the object for which you came is not accomplished. I enclose you a check of #50. It is a loan which you may repay when you can."
Some years afterward, when I could have repaid him, I wrote, asking for the privilege of remaining forever in his debt, knowing that this request would be more consonant to his feelings than the recovery of the money, and I am now in his debt. What he has done for me, I know he has done for many others; in silence and unknown to the world. I wish I could go on to state something of his character, his conversational powers, etc., but I feel that I am not in a condition to speak of them. I would only say that his habits were very peculiar. He was an early riser, and yet he was seen at late hours in the salons in different parts of Paris. From the year 1830 to 1848, while in Paris, he had been charged by the King of Prussia to send reports upon the condition of things there. He had before prepared for the King of Prussia a report on the political condition of the Spanish colonies in America, which no doubt had its influence afterward upon the recognition of the independence of those colonies. The importance of such reports to the government of Prussia may be inferred from a perusal of his political and statistical essays upon Mexico and Cuba. It is a circumstance worth noticing, that above all great powers, Prussia has more distinguished, scientific, and literary men among her diplomatists than any other state. And so was Humboldt actually a diplomatist in Paris, though he was placed in that position, not from choice, but in consequence of the benevolence of the king, who wanted to give him an opportunity of being in Paris as often and as long as he chose.
But from that time there were two men in him--the diplomatist, living in the Hotel des Princes, and the naturalist who roomed in the Rue de la Harpe, in a modest apartment in the second story; where his scientific friends had access to him every day before seven. After that he was frequently seen working in the library of the Institute, until the time when the grand seigneur made his appearance at the court or in the salons of Paris.
The influence he has exerted upon the progress of science is incalculable. I need only allude to the fact that the "Cosmos," bringing every branch of natural science down to the comprehension of every class of students, has been translated into the language of every civilized nation of the world, and gone through several editions. With him ends a great period in the history of science, a period to which Cuvier, Laplace, Arago, Gay-Lussac and De Candolle, and Robert Brown belonged.