Rodolfo Amedeo Lanciani.

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than the twelve Caesars. No other single yearprobably, before
or since, ever produced such men as Napoleon, W ellinffton, Soult
and Ney ; Brunei, Mehemet Aly, Turner, Sir Thomas Lawrence,
Chateaubriand, and Castlereagh ; Cuvier and Humboldt ; men
who upturned the world and set it right again ; who revolution-
ized science, art, politics, states, ana the affairs of mankind.
Humboldt, in many respects the most gifted of them all, out-
lived them alL

With his life ended, and became historic, the first grand
period of modem science. The times that developed the
French Revolution ripened Humboldt, and made conspicuous
others, many of them his firiends and fellow laborers, among

* Trwnsito of Venue are aa rare as they are important They occur in couples, in
June and December, about eif2:ht years apart, and then not again for several gener-
ations. Kepler was aware of the phenomenon and as early as 1604 announced
that one wcnild take place in 1761, but young Horrocks of Liverpool with better
tables, Mid additional data, calculated that there would be a trcmgit on the 4th of
Dec., 1639. He let a Mend into his secret, and they two on the day named, for
Venus was punctus^ were the first ever known to observe it. It was soon calcu-
lated that (me must have taken place on the 6th of Dec., 1631, and another in
June, 1526, and that the next woidd not occur till the 5th of June, 1761. But of
an the transits, past and to come, the climax would be, that of the 3d of June,
1769, when Venus passed across tiie sun's disc very near the center. The next
one, but not visible in this country, will take place five years hence on the 8th of
Dec., 1874, which will be a grand one for sdenoe, considering the great advance
in science instruments, but far inferior to the last If, however, it produces only
half a dozen Csesars it wiU be a godsend to this rapid century. Let young foOca
take note of the date 1874. Another will occur on the 6th of Dec, 1882, but not
again till nearly five quarters of a century later, on the 7th of June, 2004 ; to be
followed eight years after, on the 5Ui day of June, 201 2 ; to be repeated in Dea,
2117, and so on.



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4 Alexander von Humboldt

whom inay be named LaPlace, Lalande, Qtiy-Lussac, Kunth,
Bonpland, Oltmans, Oersted, Bichat, Delambre, Bessel Ber-
zelius, Davy, Eobert Brown, Dalton, Herschel, DeOandoUe,
Latreille, Valenciennes, Audubon, David d'Angier, Arago,
Gauss, Ritter, Miiller, Leopold von Buch, Varahagen von Ense,
Compte, Biot, et al^ names themselves suggesting discoveries,
inventions and unbounded knowledge.

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin on the 14th of
September, 1769, and died there on the 6th of May, 1869, in the
ninetieth year of his age. A rapid sketch of ms youth and
early manhood will serve to show how well he prepared him-
self, single-handed, to accomplish so much ; more even than
most of the learned academies of which he was a member, and
certainly not less thap any of the great Vovages of Discovery,
and celebrated Exploring Expeditions conducted at the pubho
expense. The course pursued with him was so peculiar, and
contrasts so completely with the usual course of training in the
colleges of this country, even in the scientific departments, that
no pains have been spared to render this account as complete
and exact as possible. Unroll the scrolls of biography and no
name will be found a brighter example to stimulate, encour-
age and direct the youthful student than that of Humboldt

He was fortunate in his father. Major von Humboldt, who
gave him wealth and position; favored in his elder brother
W illiam, who gave him the best of companionship, whom he
and the world alike loved and honored through a long life ;
and blessed in his noble mother, to whose virtues, devotion to
her boys, energy of purpose, and common senoe he owed a
right start both m the political world, which he disliked, and
in the physical world, which he adored. The earliest tutor chosen
by the mother to teach and play with the two boys was Campe
the educationist, who among other children's books, edited m
German, Eobinson Crusoe, a work which no doubt had its early
influence in bending the youthful twig. When Alexander was
eight years old his father died. The mother and her two boys
then lived at Tegel the old homestead a few miles fixjm Berlin.
Alexander's constitution was not very strong. In the year 1779
the widow was fortunate enough to secure for their companion
and tutor, G. J. Christian Kunth, a youth of twenty, a rare and
noble fellow, in whom the mother could and did place implicit
confidence. He took charge of the brothers, and became their
guide, companion and friend, at the same time being in con-
stant consultation with their mother. How admirably he
guided them in their b<5yish games and studies, and how fiedth-
rally he labored for and with them in after life, both the brothers
bear ample testimony. The next year, when Alexander was



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Alexander von Eumboldt 6

eleven, he heard at Tegel private lectures on botany by Heim.
Two years later Kunth used to take the boys to Berlin to pursue
their studies with private masters. They studied together, but
each was allowed to follow his own bent Though Alexander
differed widely from William in his inclination for some studies,
yet both were alike ardent, and each sympathized with the
taste of the other. Here Ldffler taught them Greek, and
young Willdenow, a risilig botanist, with perhaps the best
herbmum in Europe, instructed them in botany, while Dohn,
Engel, Klein and other distinguished professors were engaged
by their ever faithful tutor, to give them private lectures in
law, politics, philosophy, mathematics, and the physical sciences.
Kunth too heard all these lectures, and a little boy of nine,
four years younger than Alexander, heard some of them,
Leopold von Buch his nama

Tnus they passed two years partly at the capitol and partly
at Tegel, always under the watchnil care of Kunth, and all
three under the eye of the mother, with no temporal cares to
retard theirprogress, and no family obscurity to embarrass their
position. Two years later Kunth and his charge, late in 1785,
took their first leave of the mother for a time, and went to join
the University at Frankfort on the Oder, where they resided
two years or more, in the fitmily of their Greek professor LoflBer,
who had removed thither from Berlin. At Easter, 1788, having
exhausted the resources of Frankfort and grounded for a
higher course, Kunth accompanied the brothers to Gdttingen, at
that time the most celebrated University of Germany. Here
Alexander at the age of eighteen found ample scope lor all his
aspirations in nature and natural science, and both orothers had
more ample opportunities afforded them to follow out the diverse
branches of research to which each felt a strong innate ten-
dency.

The University of Gottingen was then at its zenith, with the
best selected library of modem books in Europe. Here they
met and cemented lasting friendships with those world-renowned
Professors, Blumenbach, Eichhom, Gmelin, Heeren, Heyne and
George Forster, all of whom in after life the brothers were never
tired of naming with love and gratitude. The wives of Heeren
and Foster were the accomplished daughters of Heyne, he of
the Homer, he of the Virgil, who was himself both Professor of
languages and librarian of the University. Into this learned
femily circle the brothers were cordially admitted in the closest
terms of intimacy. Alexander soon became the favorite pupil
of the great naturalist Blumenbach, and was proud to call him-
self the scholar of Gmelin.

But it was to George Forster that Alexander never ceased to
acknowledge his indeDtednes& Forster was then only thirty-



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6 Alexander von HumholdL

four. He had accompanied Capt Cooke in his second voyage
round the world in 1773-1775, with his fiather J. Eeinhold Fors-
ter, and in the following year 1777 gave to the world his mar-
velous book, Beise nam der SUdsee^ which afterwards made a
profound impression on the mind of young Humboldt, and was
perhaps the first great incitement in him to the scientific study
of nature. How rejoiced then must he have been to find at
Gottingen, Forster whose voyages he knew by heart, and whom
he delighted long after to call *my celebrated teacher and
friend.' *If I might,' wrote he in Cosmos in the late evening
of his life, *be permitted to instance my own experience, ana
recal to mind the source from whence sprang my early and
fixed desire to visit the land of the tropics, I snould name
George Forster's Delineations of the South Sea Islands,^ etc.

The same year, 1788, and while enjoying the society of Fors-
ter, there appeared another little book which seems to have still
farther aroused his love of nature and strengthened his resolu-
tion, already formed, for great voyages. This was Bernardin
de St Pierre's master work, Paul and Virginia^ a copy of
which he says in Cosmos * accompanied me to tiie climes whence
it took its origin. For many years it was the constant compan-
ion of myself and my valued friend and fellow traveler 6on-
pland, and oft«n in the calm brilliancy of a southern sky, or when
m the rainy season tiie thunder re-echoed, and the lightning
gleamed tlirough the forests that skirt the shores of the Orinoco,
we felt ourselves penetrated by the marvelous truth with which
tropical nature is described, with all its peculiarity of character,
in this little book.'

After a residence of nearly two years at Gottingen, studying
languages, botany, zoology, geography, chemistry, mathematics,
geology, mineralogy, etc., in tne spring of 1790, Humboldt
joined his friend Forster at Mayence, whither he had removed,
and they two set out on a private scientific Exploring Expedi-
tion down the Ehina At that time the great question that de-
vided geologists, had reference to the Plutonian and Neptunian
origin of rocks. The Basalt of that noble river was before
him, and accoutred as he was he plunged into the controversy
with mind impartial and fresh from the university. The result
of his investigations appeared the same year in his first book,
at the age of twenty, entitled, Mineralogische Beobachtungen uber
etntge Bxsalte am Bhein. Braunschweig, 1790, 12®. It is a very
neat little volume arrranged with taste and judgment, and in a
scientific point of view is said to be creditable to a much older
head. The book was published anonymously and is now but
little known, being very scarce. The copy described in the
Catalogue (No. 4568), and now belonging to General Fremont,
possesses peculiar interest It bears t£e author's autograph sig-



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Alexander von HumbcldL 7



nature, at the end of the dedication, and was presented to Pro-
fessor Gmelin in 1790, with an affectionate inscription *by his
scholar, A. von Humboldt* More than sixty years after, on his
eighty-fifth birth-day, this precious Uttle volume was re-presen-
ted by Theodor Wagener to the great philosopher, who on the
14th of Sept, 1854, inscribed in it a graceftd memento of his
youth and of his old aga

From the Ehine the travelers passed through Holland and
Belgium, and thence to England, where Forster introduced
Humboldt to the President of the Eoyal Society, Sir Joseph
Banks, his fellow voyager fifteen years before with Capt Cookc
round the world. He was warmly received by many of the
scientific men of London. At the house of WsCrren Hastings
he was shown some pictures by Hodge representing the shores
of the Ganges, whicn made a lasting mipression upon his vouth-
ful mind, and still further increased his longing for travel On
returning to Grermany he published his booK, and then the first
great q^aestion of his life was asked by his mother. What next ?
There is some pretty strong evidence that she desired him to
take to political hie and become a diplomatist or statesman.
At all events it was determined that he should enter upon some
public employment, and the better to qualify him for this, he
went to HamDurgh, and in the winter of 1790-1791 attended
the celebrated Commercial Academy of Ebeling, studying busi-
ness, accoimts, trade, banking, and commerce, as much as his
ardent love of the physical sciences would permit But even
here, of all places m me world, he was unexpectedly encouraged
in his ruling passion. Ebeling became his fiiend and opened
to him the treasures of his own private library, at that time one
of the largest collections of voyages and travels with maps
and geographical works relating to America, then in Europe.
Ebelmg was about to go to press with the first volume of his
great work on America and hence his mind was full of the sub-
ject That rich collection was afterward purchased by Mr.
Thomdike of Boston, and presented to the library of Harvard
CSollege, of which to this day it forms a prominent featura

After a struggle of a few months between business and sci-
ence, Humboldrs inordinate love of the latter finally triumphed,
and in 1791 he turned his back on Ebeling his finend, and com-
merce his foe, and soon after found himself in Werner's house
in Freiberg, with that dear boy for his chum whom he had met
at lectures eight years before in Berlin, Leopold von Buch, then
a youth of seventeen. Werner, at that time the greatest geolo-
gist of the age, was Director of the School of Mines at Frei-
berg. From sight these two young men became fi-iends for
life. More than three score years later, wrote Humboldt, *That
I should be destined — ^I, an old man of eighty-three — ^to an-



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8 Alexander von Humboldt

nounce to you, dear Sir Roderick, the saddest news that I could
have to convey :'...* Leopold von Buch w; s taken from us this
morning* .... 'without him I am desolate.' . . . * His mind
left a track of light wherever it passed.* . . . *We were to-
gether in Italy, in Switzerland, in France, — ^four months in
Saltzburg.' ' At Freiberg Humboldt devoted himself with hum-
boldtian energy to the study of mining and metallurgy. His
mind was ever open and ready for impressions, which it received
as surely as wax, and as speedily as photography. No bee
could exhaust the wild flowers of the woods quieter than he
could extract from his masters all they had to impart Scarce-
ly a year then sufficed to accomplish his aim at W emer's, whom
he left in Maixjh, 1792, and returned to his mother at TegeL

Humboldt had now arrived at the end of his pupilage ; and
such a pupilage I unparalled in biography. Who before him
was ever so favored by fortune, so mentaUv rifted, so lovingly
ledy and so intellectually prepared, for the brilliant career upon
which he was about to enter? Yet he took no royal roaa to
his acquisitions, but that hard paved one open to all, with work,
self reliance, energy and love of nature lor mile stones. At
this early age we find him in scholarship ripe beyond his years,
a linguist, an archaeologist, a botanist, a geographer, a geolo-

S'st, a mineralogist, a metallurgist, a chemist, and an author,
is travels for tne period had been considerable, and few had
so many learned friends. What a contrast to the youthful
struggles of the immortal Franklin, and jet these two are per-
haps the brightest examples for youth m record. Thus pre-
pared Humboldt was launched into the wide world at the age
of twenty-two, burning with an irresistible desire, as he repeat-
edly tells us in after life, to travel in distant lands unexplored
by Europeans.

The next five years, from 1792 to 1797, the yoimg aspirant is
tracked with some difficulty through a combination of circum-
stances well calculated to elevate, strengthen and mature him
for the execution of some grand project Bom and educated
in central Germany, remote fix)m salt water, with a love of na-
ture ingrain and strengthening with his knowledge, he longed
for the sea, as he tells us, and the tropics, and had already re-
solved, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, to go round
the world, and gratify his enthusiasm for the savage beauties of
tropical countries guarded by mountains and volcanoes, shaded
by primeval forests and watered by vast unexplored rivers ; and
going or coming, explore that New World where man and his
handiworks of ancient and modem civilization had not inter-
vened to dwarf the stupendous display of gigantic natura All
his studies now tended to qualify him for a scientific traveler.
As his journey was to be the circle of the globe, so his study



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Alexander van Etmboldt 9

was the circle of the sciences. He worked hard and observed
closely ; and, what in a young observer of nature is of the high-
est importance, he reduced to order his observations and wrote
them out During his short year with Werner, the parent of
the Neptunian theory, he found time to collect and describe the
crypto^amous plants he found growing far down in the mines
01 Freibei^. He made drawings of them, wrote out their nat-
ural history in good Latin, and sent his manuscript to Gottin-
gen to his old friend and teacher, Blumenbach, wno soon after
returned it, edited with his own notes, and backed with the seal
of his approbation. The work,* a handsome quarto volume,
saw the hght the next year, at Berlin, it being his second book,
at the age of twentjr-three. The second part of it. Aphorisms
on the diemtcal physiology of vegetables^ he found of great use to
him in his observations in America.

This same year he accepted an official position under govern-
ment in order that he might have influence and opportunities
the better to pursue his investigations. He became the Super-
intendent of Mines in Franconia, and during the short two
years he held that position, is said to have remodeled the sys-
tems of development and management He inspected every
department himself, near and remote, and became both an ex-
ecutive officer and a business man ; while at the same time he
was a student, an observer, an explorer and an author. His
mental activity was perfectly marvelous, and his scientific and
literary labors prodigious. He made experiments and contrib-
uted many articles both in his own and m the French language,
to the chief scientific journals of Germany and Franca Hum-
boldt thus early achieved a reputation throughout Europe as a
rising naturalist In 1795 he resigned this official position,
which, although favorable to the cultivation of his favorite pur-
suits, still did not fill his active mind, now more and more
thirsting for explorations in the equatorial regions. This pas-
sion led him to devour and analyze the relations of voyages
and travels to India, America, Africa and the Islands, but
generally to r^ret the want of variety of knowledge in insu-
kted branches of natural history. The great Expeditions of
Fleurieu in 1768-69, of Bougainville in 176ft-69, of Cooke 1768-
1780 were familiar to him as household words, as were also af-
terward those of Vancouver, La P^rouse and d'Entrecasteaux;
but all these, though they gave ample accounts of the oceans,
their islands and their coasts, yet left him unsatisfied as to the
vast interiors of coimtries and continents. They developed

* Florjs Fribebgensis Specimen Plantas dyptogamicas prsssertim subterrane-
wm exhibens. Aooedimt Aphorismi ex Doctrina Ph3rsiologi8B chemicsB Plantarum.
\Y Plates, 4^, BeroUni, 1793. The Aphoriams the next year, 1794, were translated
into German bj G. Fischer, with additions hj J. Hedwig, and a Preface hy G. !P.
Lndwig, and published at Liepzig in 8yo.



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10 Aleocander van HurriboldL

marine geography and nautical astronomy, but left comparative-
ly untouched, physical geography, botany, zoology, the relations
of the vegetable world, the migrations of the social plants, and
the geological structure of mountains and volcanoes. All these
he found set forth .more to his liking in M. de Saussure's scien-
tific explorations of the Alps and Vesuvius, which interested
him profoundly and caused nim to study carefully both the re-
sults and the use of the instruments by which they were at-
tained.

In this same year, 1795, freed from official care, Humboldt
traveled much through Germany and visited Vienna, where he
renewed his studies in botany and physical geography, studied
and traveled with Freiesleben the celebrated geognost, and with
von Haften visited northern Italy, but was for political reasons
deterred from going to the volcanic regions of Naples and Si-
cily. At Vienna he became acquainted with the recent discov-
eries of Galvani which interested him deeply, and henceforth
galvanism became one of his special studies, if indeed a mind
of such general grasp can attena on specialties. Many months
of most useful preparatory study he passed there examining the
exotic plants, and enjoying the friendship, of M. de Jacquier
and of M. Vander Schott Already familiar with the experi-
ments of Franklin and others in electricity, he began there his
femous experiments in chemistry, galvanism, electricity and other
matters pertaining to organic life, which in importance and orig-
inality rivalled the celebrated but subsequent investigations of
Bichat

About this timcj at the instigation of Baron von Zach, he found
time to acquire a practical knowledge of astronomy, surveying,
geometry and mathematics, all so essential to travelers, and be-
came familiar with the use of the various scientific instruments
for ascertaining latitudes and longitudes, heights and distances,
etc. Next, in the winter of 1796-97, we find him at Jena
studying anatomy and physiology under Loder. Here he con-
tinued his investigations into animal life in connection with
chemistry, galvanism and electricity, and especially experi-
mented on the irritability of the muscular fibre, the vital force
in animals and plants, and almost hoped that he had found the
clue to the phenomena of life. In close connection with these
studies he fcund it necessary to obtain a practical knowledge of
zoology, ichthyology and ornithology. AH these investigations
and experiments, containing the germs of a new science, which,
especially in America, is to-day exerting itself with vigor, were
embodied in his third book* published m Posen in 1797, in two
volumes in octavo.

♦ Versuche fiber die gerelzten Muskel- und Nenrenfasem oder GWvamBmus, oebst
Vermuthimgen tiberden chemischen Process des LebeDS in derTbier- uad Pflanzen-



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Alexander von Humboldt * 11

Humboldt now began to think seriously of leaving Europe
for a long journey, but regretted to do so without first having
seen Vesuvius, Stromboli and Etna, to enable him by compari-
son to form a * proper judgment of a great number of geologi-
cal phenomena ; especially of the nature of the rocks of trap
formation, it became necessary to have examined strictly the
phenomena offered by burning volcanoes.' At Jena he re-
vived his friendship with Goethe and Schiller, the one twenty,
the other ten, years his senior, both of whom he terrified by his
tremendous energy, and inspired with his own love of nature.
'My natural historic studies have been roused from their win-
ter sleep by his presence ' wrote Goethe to Schiller ; and wrote
Schiller to Goetne * Although the whole family of Humboldt
lie ill of the ^ue they speak only of great joumiea* He there-
fore determined to return to Italy and with his fiiend Leopold
von Buch set out in November, 1797. They spent some time
in Vienna, four months in the several cantons of Salzburg and
Styria, pursuing to great advantage their geological investiga-
tions ; but as they were about to pass the Tyrolian Alps tne
wars of Italy compelled them to tuxD back, and, to Hum ooldt's
great regret, to abandon the volcanoes. They then proceeded
through France home to Berlin.*

The time had now arrived for immediate preparation for his
great voyaga But whither go ? * He was undecided, the im-
pediments of wars and politics being so great it was impossible
to determina However, having buried his mother, and settled
his worldlv affairs for a long absence, he set out for Paris in 1798.
His fame nad already preceded him, and he soon made the ac-

auaintance of many savans, and set about earnestly to collect
ae instruments ana all things necessary for a long scientific
exploring expedition. The very list of this apparatus filling
pages in nis Personal Narrative is enough to overpower the mina
of an unscientific traveller. There were chronometers, tele-
scopes, (achromatic and simple), lunettes, sextants, reflecting



Online LibraryRodolfo Amedeo LancianiThe American journal of science and arts → online text (page 2 of 109)