Illustration of Humboldt’s voyage

1799 Humboldt’s voyage

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Alexander von Humboldt philosophy of science zoology Illustration of Humboldt’s voyage

Humboldt’s voyage

Alexander Humboldt prepared himself to be a scientific explorer. He studied foreign languages, mineralogy, meteorology, anatomy, botany, geology, and the use of scientific instruments. He assembled the largest collection of the most accurate and portable instruments in velvet-lined boxes. When his hopes to accompany Captain Nicolas Baudino around the world were frustrated by the postponement of that voyage, Alexander teamed up with Aimé Bonpland, the botanist of the frustrated expedition, and they planned to join Napoleon in Egypt; however, travel to Egypt being difficult and patronage from the Spanish minister Don Marinao Luis de Urquijo convinced them to explore Latin America. On a trip that started in 1799 and lasted five years from which Alexander and Aimé were not expected to return they discovered the oil-bird (Steatornis caripensis), discovered, captured, and experimented with the electric eel (getting severely shocked in the process), proved the existence and established the location between the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers of the Casiquiare canal, observed the manufacture of curare (from poisonous frogs), studied guano as a fertilizer, observed the transit of Mercury, observed the Leonid meteor shower, made inquiries about the origin of tropical storms, studied the volcanos, climbed mount Pinchincha and attempted to climb the Chimborazo volcano (reaching a world record altitude of 19,286 feet), studied and charted the cold current off the coast of Peru which is now named after Alexander, was the first to investigate the decrease in temperature with the increase in elevation, discovered the decrease in Earth’s magnetic field from the poles to the equator, documented the lives of several native peoples, gathered valuable zoological, geological, ethnographic, and botanical specimens, and, perhaps improbably, stayed at the White House as a guest of President Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt was the first to recognize the relation between plants and animals and their ecological niche. His expedition laid the foundation of the sciences of geography and meteorology.

Plants and animals

Spheniscus humboldti, a penguin, also known as the Peruvian penguin or Patranca, and the Dosidicus gigas, the Humboldt squid, also known as the jumbo squid, the jumbo flying squid, or diablo rojo (red devil), are both named after the waters in which they are found, the cold Humboldt Current in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which is, in turn, named after A. Humboldt. Neither bear any resemblance to Alexander, nor does Conepatus humboldtii, Humboldt’s Hog-nosed skunk, nor Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana, an Amazon River Dolphin living in the Orinoco River basin that Alexander and Aimé explored, and it’s not intended to be humorous that Utricularia humboldtii, a bladderwort, is named after Alexander. (Hey, I wouldn’t mind having a bladderwort named after me.) Scientists have been generous, naming Salix humboldtiana, a South-American willow, Geranium humboldtii, a geranium or cranesbill, Lilium humboldtii, a lily, Phragmipedium humboldtii, an orchid, Quercus humboldtii, a South American (the Andean) oak, and some neotropical shrubs, Annona humboldtii and Annona humboldtiana, not to mention the names of geographical features such as a bay, river, and mountains, or towns, counties, parks, forests, and streets, or universities, colleges, and schools.

Humboldt County

After work each day, as the sun began to set, I would jump the fence, run across the highway, and scramble down the bank and over the railroad tracks to sit on the side of a rusted box car tumbled into the river to protect the tracks. The river would flow quietly in its wide gravel bed. A small cool breeze would drift up the river. A great heron would stalk along the opposite bank. A kingfisher would cry, dart, and perch upon a stump. The sun would set and bats would flit into the darkness.

As a young boy, Alexander collected and labeled plants, shells, and insects. His desire to become a scientific explorer was cemented by his friendship in college with Georg Forster, who had accompanied his father on Captain James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific. Humboldt eventually became known as an naturalist, ethnologist, and travel writer.

The breadth of Alexander Humboldt's interests was huge; not all of them, and not all of his accomplishments, are described here. In his work Cosmos, he attempted to unify the whole of natural science and geography.

While I worked on my Ph.D. dissertation, I lived at my parent’s home at 100 North Main Street in Fortuna, California. Across the fence was Highway 101, the railroad track, and the broad, graveled expanse of the Eel River.

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