Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

The Humboldt University in Berlin was founded in 1810 by the scholar, linguist and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1767-1835, who for a short time — less than a year, actually — was in charge of education in the government of Prussia. During that time he and his staff not only founded the new university but also instituted sweeping reforms of the Prussian school system.

His younger brother Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859, was a naturalist and explorer who was especially interested in botany, geography and geology. He traveled for five years in Latin America and then spent the next twenty-one years, mainly in Paris, writing up the scientific results of his travels and publishing them in a set of huge, elaborately illustrated volumes. (I have looked through some of these in libraries and was astounded at the scope and vast amounts of detail.)

Books about Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

In the winter of 1827-28 Alexander von Humboldt gave a series of lectures on the natural sciences at the University of Berlin, now the Humboldt University. These lectures were the starting point of Kosmos, a “physical description of the world”, in which he explained and summed up the results of a number of scientific disciplines of his time, including geography, geology, zoology, botany and astronomy.

Kosmos by Alexander von Humboldt

Kosmos in the nineteenth century was a quite popular book— or books, since it was originally published in five volumes that Alexander von Humboldt wrote during the last three decades of his life. It was reprinted in various editions and was translated into several languages.

My copy of Kosmos is a one-volume edition that I inherited from my father. It is in the original German but was printed and published in Philadelphia in 1869, ten years after the author’s death, as the Amerikanische Jubiläums-Ausgabe (American Anniversary Edition).

My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2019.

See also: Einstein lectured here.

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