Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm were privately given education. Their mother wanted them to have the potential for high positions for which they were exposed to mathematics, politics, economics, languages and other subjects.
Humboldt was poor in education and dreamt of joining the armies. But he continued his studies under the pressure of his mother. He studied economics at the University of Frankfurt. He spent some time in Berlin studying engineering and it was during that time that he showed interest in Botany. Humboldt, with his newly developed passion, started accumulating different plants specimen from Berlin and the areas surrounding it. But the climatic condition in the region had its own limitations which made Humboldt wishing to travel far where he could explore his interest.
From 1789-90, Humboldt studied at the University of Gottingen where he was exposed to Science and he started gaining interest in geology and mineralogy. He joined the School of Mines in Freiberg to get detailed information on these subjects. Humboldt was desperate for knowledge and his morning would be spent in the mines, the next few hours in the college class and the evenings were spent on collecting plants specimens. After two years of studying from Freiburg, Humboldt left the place in 1792 without any certificates.
After leaving Freiburg, Humboldt was selected by the Prussian government for the mining department. He was sent to the Fichtel Mountain in Ansbach-Bayreuth which was recently taken over by the Prussian kings. Humboldt spent his time traveling from mine to mine in the new place and reorganized the working by taking advantage of the abandoned copper and gold mining pits. Though Humboldt was not seriously interested in a career in mining, he made sure that he was monitoring all the work done in the mine and also invented the safety lamp. Humboldt initiated with a mining school where the young miners were given the training in mining.
The thirst for knowledge was getting deep for Humboldt and in 1797, he resigned from his post to travel and gain more knowledge on his preferred subjects. Humboldt wanted to make scientific explorations which were interfered by Napoleon wars. After several disappointed attempts, Humboldt finally got permission from the Spanish government to perform scientific explorations in Spain. He decided to visit Southern and Central America. Accessible only to the Spanish bureaucrats and Roman Catholic churches, Humboldt was sure that his social status would make him gain the authorization from the local authorities. He found that Mariano de Urquijo, the Spanish Prime Minister was an enlightened soul and could help him get royal permission for scientific explorations.
Humboldt began his first exploration through his personal expenses. He got to use the money he inherited after the death of his mother in the form of an estate. It was in 1799 when Humboldt along with a botanist Aimé Bonpland whom he was introduced in Paris started their journey from Marseille. Both of them spent around five years until 1804 in the Southern and Central America. They had traveled 6,000 miles on foot, canoes and through horseback rides.
Beginning from Caracas, they traveled to the banks of Orinoco River. They followed the course of the river and reached till Casiquiare and through this voyage, established that Casiquiare created a link between Orinoco and Amazon. Humboldt and Bonpland continued their tour into the dense forest, tortured by mosquitoes and humidity. This did not bring their spirits down and they continued walking even after their survival kit consisting of food and other resources were spoiled by rain and insects. For many days they survived on river water and cacao beans. Both voyagers remained in the best of emotional state while exploring the regions until they were attacked by fever and had to come back to human society.
After a short time in Cuba, both of them began their travel once again. They mounted numerous volcano peaks without the availability of any modern climbing equipment. When both of them suffered from mountain sickness, for the first time, Humboldt was able to establish that the mountain sickness happens because of the lack of oxygen on higher ranges. When the rangers returned back to Quito with their studied conclusions and discoveries, they were very well received by the society of Spanish leaders.
Other than rare information on the plant species, Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland had also collected information on the Earth’s magnetic field, latitude and longitude dimensions, and their observations of daily temperature and pressure.
From 1804 to 1827, Humboldt dedicated his time to publishing the information he had gathered in his long voyage. He stayed in Paris during this time. He joined forces with several French scientist and illustrators who were ready to publish his findings from the long expedition from the south and Central America. Humboldt’s maps representing the temperature and pressure changes put up the foundation for the subject of climatology. He also presented the study of the development of the Earth’s crust which came out to be very important. Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain mentioned about the climatic and the geological changes that happened in Mexico along with its economic and social conditions. His explanation on the Mexican volcanoes attracted many English miners to invest in them.
During his time in Paris, Humboldt was able to establish the relationship with several great scientists as well as the commoners. He gained admiration and respect through his vision of what science was capable of. He was the main talker and the regular visitor of the salons of Persia. He had to face financial stress with most of his finances spent on the expedition and publication of his books. He started spending time introducing and encouraging young and new scientist in the field. These set of scientists also included zoologist Louis Agassiz and Chemist Justus von Liebig who were helped financially by Humboldt during their academics.
Humboldt left Paris in the year 1827 when he was almost out of money and the king of Berlin requested for his presence in the courtroom. He became the court chamberlain, became a tutor for the crown prince and was an associate of the Privy Council. He had a good position in the court and he encouraged his knowledge and the use of scientific methods at the place. He also gave a lecture on geography to the University of Berlin which he repeated once again to an audience of 1000 members.
In 1828, Humboldt was successful in organizing Berlin’s first science conference. In 1829, Humboldt was requested by the Finance minister of Russia to visit their mines and give his observation on them as an advisor to the government. As a guest of the Tsar, Humboldt began this small expedition with two young scientists and a Russian official following them wherever they visited. The geological, meteorological and geographical conclusion gained from the expedition proved to be very important with the area of Central Asia largely unknown to the western world.
Humboldt spends the last thirty years of his life in Berlin, occasionally visiting Paris to meet up with his scientist friends to have long conversations on science. Last many years of Humboldt’s life were spent in writing Kosmos. This work gave information on the arrangements of the universe and the great discoveries Humboldt had made during his lifetime. He was able to publish four volumes of his book but before finishing the fifth volume, Humboldt succumbed to death when he was ninety. He was honored for the success of this book and it was translated into many different languages.
Because Humboldt did not mention God in his work Cosmos, and sometimes spoke unfavourably of hypocritical religious attitudes, it was occasionally speculated that he was a materialist philosopher, or perhaps an atheist. But Humboldt himself denied imputations of atheism.
Humboldt showed religious tolerance towards Judaism, and he criticized the political Jews Bill, which was an initiative intended to establish legal discrimination against Jews.
“There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.”
I saw with regret, (and all scientific men have shared this feeling) that whilst the number of accurate instruments was daily increasing, we were still ignorant.”
Caustic in comment, Humboldt was benevolent in disposition, but he was quite unable to manage money.
Quotes from others about the person
“Robert G. Ingersoll: “He [Alexander von Humboldt] was to science what Shakespeare was to the drama.”
Charles Darwin: “[Alexander von Humboldt was the] greatest scientific traveller who ever lived.””
Alexander never married but derived great happiness from friendships with colleagues and others and also from his brother's friendly household.