Today, a nearly forgotten hero. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Checking out an armload of
books made me late for supper the other day. You
see, none of them had been used since the 1960s.
The librarian had to glue bar codes into each one.
These books were all by Baron Alexander von
Humboldt, and they were only a fraction of his
output. The naturalist von Humboldt, born in
Germany in 1769, was one of best-known scientists
of his age. Now his works languish, unread, on
Von Humboldt began writing when he was 21 and he
was 60 when he explored the far reaches of Siberia.
But he began his greatest trip when he was 30. He,
and a French botanist named Bonpland, set off to
explore Meso-America. The first great leg of that
trip began in Venezuela. They explored the Orinoco
River and showed that it connected, through the Rio
Negro, to the Amazon. They traveled 6400 miles
through sweltering, mosquito-infested swamps and
jungles, in small hand-paddled boats.
After organizing their notes and specimens in Cuba,
they went up the Magdalena River in Colombia and
over the Andes on foot to Lima, Peru. They climbed
within 1400 feet of the summit of Chimbarozo, then
the tallest known mountain -- 21½ thousand
feet high. For 36 years Humboldt and Bonpland were
the two people who'd risen furthest from sea level.
French balloonists never made it that high because
they couldn't handle the lack of oxygen.
From 1799 to 1804 they mapped Mexico, Central
America, and much of South America. They collected
material to fill scores of books in years to come
-- plants, animals, geography, and geology. Their
maps weren't superseded for years. When Humboldt
noted how the Pacific Ocean runs north along the
coast of Peru, that flow was called the Humboldt
Current, even though he disclaimed the credit.
On his way home, Humboldt stopped in Washington,
DC, to visit a kindred soul -- President Thomas
Jefferson. Jefferson entertained him for weeks and
picked his brain. A year before, Jefferson had made
the Louisiana Purchase and, just as Humboldt
arrived, he was sending Lewis and Clark out to
explore it. But their trip was modest alongside von
Humboldt's and Bonpland's Odyssey.
Back in Europe, Humboldt became the reigning
scientific statesman and voice for humanitarian use
of the New World. He told Europe her "unhappy
slaves" were quite "capable of becoming farmers and
land holders." He tried to create a unification of
the sciences in his five-volume series,
Kosmos. But, in the end, he left no
Theory of Evolution or Relativity. His real genius
was an uncanny ability to look at a strange land
and see what made it tick.
Today, von Humboldt's name is attached to a river
in Nevada, towns in Nebraska, Saskatchewan,
Tennessee -- to elements of geography all over the
Americas. So we still say the name, even as we
forget this person who opened new worlds to us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds