Number of the month: 5 years

"This article was published in our April 2019 newsletter". Sign up here.

Humboldt-jung-Weitsch-avhumboldt_640x360
Humboldt as a young adventurer and researcher in 1806

From 1799 to 1804, Alexander von Humboldt embarked on an extremely arduous journey through South and Central America. Together with his travel companions, the German researcher canoed his way through more than 2,000 kilometres of densest jungle to explore the upper Orinoco River. He managed to prove that it was linked to the river systems of the Río Negro and Casiquiare, something that was previously thought impossible. This solved one of the great geographical mysteries of the eighteenth century. With bloody feet, Humboldt – who was in his early thirties at the time – climbed the Chimborazo, then believed to be the world's highest mountain. Although he did not make it to the peak, he did reach a record altitude that remained unsurpassed for many years. Wherever he went he collected plants in abundance, mapped the landscape and recorded what he saw in writing. With his extraordinarily broad knowledge of all kinds of scientific disciplines – from astronomy and geology to zoology – Humboldt opened a new and bigger window onto the world. "The image he drew of nature made it clear for the first time that nature is a global force and that climate zones are equivalent across all the continents", is how cultural historian and Humboldt biographer Andrea Wulf puts it. "He recognised the unifying elements in diversity." Humboldt would have been 250 years old today.

Interdisciplinary field research in the modern sense

The journals that he wrote during this expedition, which ended with a visit to the American President Thomas Jefferson, were to become a lifelong project for Humboldt. They comprised the core of the 29-volume travelogue "Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent" that Humboldt published in French, German and Latin between 1805 and 1838. This important legacy is still the subject of research to this day. After the journals were acquired by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a group of experts embarked on a comprehensive study of Humboldt's observations as part of the project "Alexander von Humboldt's American Travel Journals". This joint project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) continued until 2017. "The emergence of the modern age in the field of history of science can be charted in the American travel journals", notes Professor Ottmar Ette. He ran the sub-project "Genealogy, Chronology, Epistemology" at the University of Potsdam.

At the intersection of cultural and natural sciences

In a second sub-project, entitled Securing, Contextualisation and Digitalisation (only in German), this scientific legacy was preserved and digitalised at Berlin State Library. The manuscripts, which once even went overboard, are in remarkably good condition. "Humboldt procured the most durable ink and the best paper he could find", explains Romanist and Humboldt researcher Dr Tobias Kraft. He is responsible for the long-term project "Travelling Humboldt – Science on the Move" (only in German) at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. It covers the complete edition of Humboldt's travel manuscripts at the interface between the cultural and natural sciences. Before a selection appears in print, the texts are published online, under an open licence, as part of the edition humboldt digital. This is very much in keeping with what Humboldt would have wanted, stresses Tobias Kraft. "By making our research results freely available, we are upholding his philosophy of the free exchange of knowledge."

Digitalised for future research

As a pilot project in 2016, a journal fragment of Humboldt's second stay in Havana in 1804 was published: "Isle de Cube. Antilles en général". In it, the polymath explores the issue of slavery. The first volume of the American Travel Journals, which describes the departure from Spain to the period spent in modern day Venezuela, has also already been published. Of Humboldt's many research journeys, this five-year expedition is regarded to this day as the most important. The diversity of the gathered data, essays and reports forms the core of his work and is the reason for Humboldt's global renown as a tireless researcher and scientific pioneer.

Humboldt Year 2019: Scientist, world surveyor and universal genius

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin 250 years ago. Numerous institutions bear his name and are celebrating the researcher in this anniversary year by staging a whole host of events. The platform avhumboldt250.de provides information about all upcoming dates and gives further details of the scientific and cultural focal topics.

www.avhumboldt250.de