Alexander von Humboldt.

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MatarsB vero rerura vis atque majestas in omnibus momentis fide caret, si qiiia modo
partes ejus ac non totara complectatur animo. — Plin., Hist. Nat., lib. viL, c. 1.





329 & 331 PEARL STREET,

18 56.


I CAN not more appropriately introduce the Cosmos than
by presenting a brief sketch of the life of its illustrious au-
thor.* While the name of Alexander von Humboldt is fa-
miliar to every one, few, perhaps, are aware of the peculiar
circumstances of his scientific career and of the extent of his
labors in almost every department of physical knowledge. He
was bom on the 14th of September, 1769, and is, therefore,
now in his 80th year. After going through the ordinary
course of education at Gottingen, and having made a rapid
tour through Holland, England, and France, he became a pu-
pil of Werner at the mining school of Freyburg, and in his
21st year published an "Essay on the Basalts of the Rhine."
Though he soon became officially connected with the mining
corps, he was enabled to continue his excursions in foreign
comitries, for, during the six or seven years succeeding the
publication of his first essay, he seems to have visited Austria,
Switzerland, Italy, and France. His attention to mining did
not, however, prevent him from devoting his attention to oth-
er scientific pursuits, among which botany and the then re-
cent discovery of galvanism may be especially noticed. Bot-
any, indeed, we know from his own authority, occupied him
almost exclusively for some years ; but even at this time he
was practicing the use of those astronomical and physical in-
struments which he afterward turned to so singularly excel-
lent an account.

The political disturbances of the civilized world at the close

* For the following remarks I am mainly indebted to the articles on
the Cosmos in the two leading Quarterly Reviews.

iv translator's preface.

of the last century prevented our author from carrying out
various plans of foreign travel which he had contemplated,
and detained him an unwilling prisoner in Europe. In the
year 1799 he went to Spain, with the hope of entering Africa
from Cadiz, but the unexpected patronage which he received
at the court of Madrid led to a great alteration in his plans,
and decided him to proceed directly to the Spanish posses-
sions in America, " and there gratify the longings for foreign
adventure, and the scenery of the tropics, which had haunted
him from boyhood, but had all along been turned in the dia-
metrically opposite direction of Asia." After encountering
various risks of capture, he succeeded in reaching America,
and from 1799 to 1804 prosecuted there extensive researches
in the physical geography of the New World, which have in-
delibly stamped his name in the undying records of science.

Excepting an excursion to Naples with Gay-Lussac and
Von Buch in 1805 (the year after his return from America),
the succeeding twenty years of his life were spent in Paris, and
were almost exclusively employed in editing the results of his
American journey. In order to bring these results before the
world in a manner worthy of their importance, he commenced
a series of gigantic publications in almost every branch of
science on which he had instituted observations. In 1817,
after twelve years of incessant toil, four fifths were completed,
and an ordinary copy of the part then in print cost considera-
bly more than one hundred pounds sterling. Smce that time
the publication has gone on more slowly, and even now, after
the lapse of nearly half a century, it remains, and probably
ever will remain, incomplete.

In the year 1828, when the greatest portion of his literary
labor had been accomplished, he undertook a scientific journey
to Siberia, under the special protection of the Russian govern-
ment. In this journey — a journey for which he had prepared
himself by a course of study unparalleled in the history of
travel — he was accompanied by two companions hardly less
distinguished than himself, Ehrenberg and Gustav Rose, and

translator's preface. v

the results obtained during their expedition are recorded by
our author in his Frag?nents Asiatiques, and in his Asie
Ce7itrale, and by Rose in his Reise nach dem Oural. If the
Asie Centrale had been his only work, constituting, as it
does, an epitome of all the knowledge acquired by himself and
by former travelers on the physical geography of Northern
and Central Asia, that work alone would have sufficed to
form a reputation of the highest order.

I proceed to offer a few remarks on the work of which I
now present a new translation to the English pubHc, a work
intended by its author " to embrace a summary of physical
knowledge, as connected with a delineation of the material

The idea of such a physical description of the universe had,
it appears, been present to his mind from a very early epoch.
It was a work which he felt he must accomplish, and he de-
voted almost a lifetime to the accumulation of materials for
it. For almost half a century it had occupied his thoughts ;
and at length, in the evening of life, he felt himself rich
enough in the accumulation of thought, travel, reading, and
experimental research, to reduce into form and reaUty the
undefined vision that has so long floated before him. The
w;ork, when completed, wiU form three volumes. The first
volume comprises a sketch of all that is at present Imown of
the physical phenomena of the universe ; the second compre-
hends two distinct parts, the first of which treats of the in-
citements to the study of nature, afforded in descriptive poet-
ry, landscape painting, and the cultivation of exotic plants ;
while the second and larger part enters into the consideration
of the different epochs in the progress of discovery and of the
corresponding stages of advance in human civilization. The
third volume, the publication of which, as M. Humboldt him-
self informs me in a letter addressed to my learned friend and
publisher, Mr. H. G. Bohn, " has been somewhat delayed,
owing to the present state of public affairs, will comprise the
special and scientific development of the s;reat Picture of Na-

vi translator's preface.

ture." Each of the three parts of the Cosmos is therefore, to
a certain extent, distinct in its object, and may be considered
complete in itself. We can not better terminate this brief
notice than in the words of one of the most eminent philos
ophers of our own country, that, " should the conclusion cor-
respond (as we doubt not) with these beginnings, a work will
have been accomplished every way worthy of the author's
fame, and a crowning laurel added to that wreath with which
Europe will always delight to surround the name of Alexan
der von Humboldt."

In venturing to appear before the English public as the in-
terpreter of " the great ivork of our age,^'^ I have been en-
couraged by the assistance of many kind literary and scientific
friends, and I gladly avail myself of this opportunity of ex-
pressing my deep obligations to Mr. Brooke, Dr. Day, Pro
fessor Edward Forbes, Mr. Hind, Mr. Glaisher, Dr. Percy, and
Mr. Ronalds, for the valuable aid they have afforded me.

It would be scarcely right to conclude these remarks with-
out a reference to the translations that have preceded mine.
The translation executed by Mrs. Sabine is singularly accu-
rate and elegant. The other translation is remarkable for
the opposite qualities, and may therefore be passed over in si-
lence. The present volumes differ from those of Mrs. Sabine
in having all the foreign measures converted into correspond-
ing English terms, in being published at considerably less
than one third of the price, and in being a translation of the
entire work, for I have not conceived myself justified in omit-
ting passages, sometimes amounting to pages, simply because
they might be deemed slightly obnoxious to our national prej-

* The expression applied to the Cosmos by the learned Bunsen, in
his late Report on Ethnology, in the Report of the British Association
for 1847, p. 265.


In the late evening of an active life I offer to the German
public a work, whose undefined image has floated before my
mind for almost half a century. I have frequently looked
upon its completion as impracticable, but as often as I have
been disposed to relinquish the undertaking, I have again —
although perhaps imprudently — resumed the task. This work
I now present to my cotemporaries with a diffidence inspired
by a just mistrust of my own powers, while I would willingly
forget that writings long expected are usually received mth
less indulgence.

Although the outward relations of life, and an irresistible
impulse toward knowledge of various kinds, have led me to
occupy myself for many years — and apparently exclusively —
with separate branches of science, as, for instance, with de-
scriptive botany, geognosy, chemistry, astronomical determin-
ations of position, and terrestrial magnetism, in order that I
might the better prepare myself for the extensive travels in
which I was desirous of engaging, the actual object of my
studies has nevertheless been of a higher character. The
principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest
endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in
their general connection, and to represent nature as one great
whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My inter
course with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that,
without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special
branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general
view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illu-
sion. These special departments in the great domain of nat-

v'lii author's preface.

iiral science are, moreover, capable of being reciprocally fruc-
tified by means of the appropriative forces by which they are
endowed. Descriptive botany, no longer confined to the nar-
row circle of the determination of genera and species, leads
the observer who traverses distant lands and lofty mountains
to the study of the geographical distribution of plants over the
earth's surface, according to distance from the equator and ver-
tical elevation above the sea. It is further necessary to in-
vestigate the laws which regulate the differences of tempera-
ture and climate, and the meteorological processes of the at-
mosphere, before we can hope to explain the involved causes
of vegetable distribution ; and it is thus that the observer who
earnestly pursues the path of knowledge is led from one class
of phenomena to another, by means of the mutual dependence
and connection existing between them.

I have enjoyed an advantage which few scientific travelers
have shared to an equal extent, viz., that of having seen not
only littoral districts, such as are alone visited by the majority
of those who take part in voyages of circumnavigation, but
also those portions of the interior of two vast continents which
present the most striking contrasts manifested in the Alpine
tropical landscapes of South America, and the dreary wastes
of the steppes in Northern Asia. Travels, undertaken in dis-
tricts such as these, could not fail to encourage the natural
tendency of my mind toward a generalization of views, and to
encourage me to attempt, m a special work, to treat of the
knowledge which we at present possess, regarding the sidereal
and terrestrial phenomena of the Cosmos in their empirical
relations. The hitherto undefined idea of a physical geog-
raphy has thus, by an extended and perhaps too boldly imag-
ined a plan, been comprehended under the idea of a physical
description of the universe, embracing all created things in the
regions of space and in the earth.

The very abundance of the materials which are presented
to the mind for arrangement and definition, necessarily impart
uo inconsiderable difficulties in the choice of the form utidev


which such a work must be presented, if it would aspire to
the honor of being regarded as a Hterary composition. De-
scriptions of nature ought not to be deficient in a tone of life-
like truthfulness, while the mere enumeration of a series of
general results is productive of a no less wearying impression
than the elaborate accumulation of the individual data of ob-
servation, i scarcely venture to hope that I have succeeded
in satisfying these various requirements of composition, or that
I have myself avoided the shoals and breakers which I have
known how to indicate to others. My faint hope of success
rests upon the special indulgence which the German public
have hestowed upon a small work bearing the title of Ansich-
ten der Natur, which I pubhshed soon after my return from
Mexico. This work treats, under general points of view, of
separate branches of physical geography (such as the forms of
vegetation, g;rassy plains, and deserts). The efiect produced
by this small volimie has doubtlessly been more powerfully
manifested in the influence it has exercised on the sensitive
minds of the young, whose imaginative faculties are so strong-
ly manifested, than by means of any thing which it could it-
self impart. In the work on the Cosmos on which I am now
engaged, I have endeavored to show, as in that entitled An-
sichten der Natur, that a certain degree of scientific com-
pleteness in the treatment of individual facts is not wholly
incompatible with a picturesque animation of style.

Since public lectures seemed to me to present an easy and
efficient means of testing the more or less successful manner
of connecting together the detached branches of any one sci-
ence, I undertook, for many months consecutively, first in the
French language, at Paris, and afterward in my own native
German, at Berhn (almost simultaneously at two different
places of assembly), to deUver a course of lectures on the phys-
ical description of the universe, according to my conception
of the science. My lectures were given extemporaneously,
both in French and German, and without the aid of written
notes, nor have I, in any way, made use, in the present work,

author's preface.

of those portioiis of my discourses which have been preserved
by the industry of certain attentive auditors. V/ith the ex-
ception of the first forty pages, the whole of the present work
was written, for the first time, in the years 1843 and 1844.

A character of unity, freshness, and animation must, I
think, be derived from an association with some definite
epoch, where the object of the writer is to delineate the pres-
ent condition of knowledge and opinions. Since the addi-
tions constantly made to the latter give rise to fundamental
changes in pre-existing views, my lectures and the Cosmos
have nothing in common beyond the succession in which the
various facts are treated. The first portion of my work con
tains introductory considerations regarding the diversity in
the degrees of enjoyment to be derived from nature, and the
knowledge of the laws by which the universe is governed ; it
also considers the limitation and scientific mode of treatinjr a
physical description of the universe, and gives a general pic-
ture of nature which contains a view of all the phenomena
comprised in the Cosmos.

This general picture of nature, which embraces within its
wide scope the remotest nebulous spots, and the revolving
double stars in the regions of space, no less than the telluric
phenomena included under the department of the geography
of organic forms (such as plants, animals, and races of men),
comprises all that I deem most specially important vdth re-
gard to the connection existing between generalities and spe-
cialities, while it moreover exemplifies, by the form and style
of the composition, the mode of treatment pursued in the se-
lection of the results obtained from experimental knowledge.
The two succeeding volumes will contain a consideration of
the particular means of incitement toward the study of na-
ture (consisting in animated delineations, landscape painting,
and the arrangement and cultivation of exotic vegetable
forms), of the history of the contemplation of the universe, or
the gradual development of the reciprocal action of natural
forces constituting one natural whole ; and, lastly, of the spe-


cial branches of the several departments of scienet, whose
mutual connection is indicated in the beginning of the work.
Wherever it has been possible to do so, I have adduced the au-
thorities from whence I derived my facts, with a view of afibrd-
ing testimony both to the accuracy of my statements and to the
value of the observations to which reference was made. In
those instances where I have quoted from my own writings
(the facts contained in which being, from their very nature, scat-
tered through different portions of my works), I have always
referred to the original editions, owing to the importance of
accuracy with regard to numerical relations, and to my own
distrust of the care and correctness of translators. In the few
cases where I have extracted short passages from the works
of my friends, I have indicated them by marks of quotation ;
and, in imitation of the practice of the ancients, I have inva-
riably preferred the repetition of the same words to any arbi-
ti'ary substitution of my own paraphrases. The much-con-
tested question of priority of claim to a first discovery, which
it is so dangerous to treat of in a work of this uncontroversial
kind, has rarely been touched upon. Where I have occasion-
ally referred to classical antiquity, and to that happy period
of transition which has rendered the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries so celebrated, owing to the great geographical dis-
coveries by which the age was characterized, I have been sim-
ply led to adopt this mode of treatment, from the desire we
experience from time to time, when considering the general
views of nature, to escape from the circle of more strictly dog-
matical modern opinions, and enter the free and fanciful do-
main of earlier presentiments.

It has frequently been regarded as a subject of discouraging
consideration, that while purely literary products of intellect
ual activity are rooted in the depths of feeling, and interwoven
with the creative force of imagination, all works treating of
empirical knowledge, and of the connection of natural phe-
nomena and physical laws, are subject to the most marked
modifications of form in the lapse of short periods of time, both

xii author's preface.

by the improvement in the instruments used, and by the con-
sequent expansion of the field of view opened to rational ob-
servation, and that those scientific works which have, to use
a common expression, become mitiquated by the acquisition
of new funds of knowledge, are thus continually being con-
signed to oblivion as unreadable. However discouraging such
a prospect must be, no one who is animated by a genuine love
of nature, and by a sense of the dignity attached to its study,
can view with regret any thing which promises future addi-
tions and a greater degree of perfection to general knowledge.
Many important branches of knowledge have been based upon
a solid foundation which will not easily be shaken, both as re-
gards the phenomena in the regions of space and on the earth ;
while there are other portions of science in which general
views will undoubtedly take the place of merely special ;
where new forces will be discovered and new substances will
be made known, and where those which are now considered
as simple will be decomposed. I would, therefore, venture to
hope that an attempt to delineate nature in all its vivid ani-
mation and exalted grandeur, and to trace the stahle amid the
vacillating, ever-recurring alternation of physical metamorph-
oses, will not be wholly disregarded even at a future age.
PoUdam, Nov., 1844.



The Translator's Preface iii

The Author's Preface vii

Summary xv


The Results of the Study of Physical Phenomena 23

The different Epochs of the Contemplation of the external World. 24
The different Degrees of Enjoyment presented by the Contempla-
tion of Nature 25

Instances of this Species of Enjoyment 26

Means by which it is induced 26

The Elevations and climatic Relations of many of the most cele-
brated Mountains in the World, considered with Reference to the

Effect produced on the Mind of the Observer 27-33

The Impressions awakened by the Aspect of tropical Regions ... 34
The more accurate Knowledge of the Physical Forces of the Uni-
verse, acquired by the Inhabitants of a small Section of the tem-
perate Zone 36

The earliest Dawn of the Science of the Cosmos 36

The Difficulties that opposed the Progress of Inquiry 37

Consideration of the Effect produced on the Mind by the Observa-
tion of Nature, and the Fear entertained by some of its injurious

Influence 40

Illustrations of the Manner in which many recent Discoveries have
tended to Remove the groundless Fears entertained regarding

the Agency of certain Natural Phenomena 43

The Amount of Scientific Knowledge required to enter on the

Consideration of Physical Phenomena 47

The Object held in View by the present Work 49

The Nature of the Study of the Cosmos 50

The special Requirements of the present Age 53

Limits and Method of Exposition of the Physical Description of the

Universe 56

Considerations on the terms Physiology and Physics 58

Physical Geography 59

Celestial Phenomena 63

The Natural Philosophy of the Ancients directed more to Celestial

than to Terrestrial Phenomena 65

The able Treatises of Varenius and Carl Ritter 66, 61

Signification of the Word Cosmos .-. . 68—70

The Domain embraced by Cosmography 71

Empiricism and Experiments 74

The Process of Reason and Induction 77



Connection betweei^ the Material and the Ideal World 80

Delineation of Nature 82

Celestial Phenomena 83

Sidereal Systems 89

Planetary Systems 90

Comets 99

Aerolites Ill

Zodiacal Light 137

Translatory Motion of the Solar System 145

The Milky Way 150

Starless Open'ngs 152

Terrestrial Phenomena 154

Geographical Distribution 161

Fio-ure of the Earth 163

Density of the Earth 169

Internal Heat of the Earth 172

Mean Temperature of the Earth 175

Terrestrial Magnetism 177

Magnetism 183

Aurora Borealis 193

Geoo-nostic Phenomena 202

Earthquakes 204

Gaseous Emanations , 217

Hot Springs 221

Salses 224

Volcanoes 227

Rocks 247

PalfEontology 270

Geognostic Periods 286

Physical Geography 287

Meteorology " 311

Atmospheric Pressure 315

Climatology 317

The Snow-line 329

Hygrometry 332

Atmospheric Electricity 335

Organic Life 339

Motion in Plants 341

Universality of Animal Life 342

Geography of Plants and Animals 346

Floras of different Countries 350

Man 352

Races 353

Language 357

Conclusion of the Subject < 359


Translator's Preface.
Author's Preface.


Vol. I.


Introduction. — Rejlections on the different Degrees of Enjoyment pre'
sented to us by the Aspect of Nature and the scientific Exposition of
the Laws of the Universe Page 23-78

Insight mto the connection of phenomena as the aim of all natural
investigation. Nature presents itself to meditative contemplation as a
jnity in diversity. Differences in the grades of enjoyment yielded by
nature. Effect of contact with free nature ; enjoyment derived from
nature independently of a knowledge of the action of natural forces, or
of the effect produced by the individual character of a locality. Effect
of the physiognomy and configuration of the surface, or of the character
of vegetation. Reminiscences of the woody valleys of the Cordilleras
and of the Peak of Teneriffe. Advantages of the mountainous region
near the equator, where the multiplicity of natural impressions attains
its maximum within the most circumscribed limits, and where it is
permitted to man simultaneously to behold all the stars of the firma-

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