Introducing Alexander von Humboldt

  • Learn about the life and legacy of Alexander von Humboldt. Narrated by modern-day polymath Ken Jennings, the 'Greatest of All Time' Jeopardy! champion. This video was created in conjunction with the SAAM exhibition Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture

    KEN JENNINGS: Introducing Alexander von Humboldt, narrated by me, Ken Jennings. Alexander von Humboldt was a 19th-century Renaissance man, an intellectual giant like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, or Marie Curie. He was interested in, well, almost everything. In fact, there was a time when Humboldt was one of the most famous people in the entire world.

    Humboldt was born in 1769, the same year as Napoleon, into a wealthy Prussian family in what’s now Germany. His parents called him “the little apothecary” because he always had plants, rocks, and lizards sticking out of his pockets, souvenirs from his frequent adventures in the great outdoors. After Humboldt’s parents died, he and his brother Wilhelm inherited a fortune, which allowed him to travel the world, collect everything he could get his hands on, and then figure out how they all fit together.

    He worked tirelessly on all his endeavors, and rumor has it he slept only 4 hours a night. He consumed large quantities of coffee, which he called “concentrated sunbeams.” Actually, Humboldt drank so much coffee that his pet parrot had a habit of squawking in German: “Mehr kaffee! Mehr zucker!” [More coffee! More sugar!] Over the course of his lifetime, he learned at least 8 languages, wrote over 25,000 letters, published 36 books, and visited more than a dozen countries on 4 continents at a time when most people seldom left their hometowns.

    In 1802, Humboldt climbed Mount Chimborazo in South America, considered at the time to be the tallest mountain in the world. He ascended to 19,413 feet, a mountaineering record that stood for 30 years.

    In 1804, Humboldt visited the United States for the first and only time, and he managed to charm the living daylights out of almost everybody he met. In Philadelphia, he met the leading scientists and artists, and in Washington, he palled around with President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison. Dolley Madison wrote, “He is the most interesting traveler we have ever met, and is much pleased with America.” While he was in the United States for just six short weeks, the political and scientific friendships Humboldt formed profoundly influenced American cultural identity over the next half century.

    When Humboldt died in Berlin in 1859, just shy of his 90th birthday, the New York Times dedicated extensive coverage to his eulogy. His legacy is hard to overstate. In this country, he inspired generations of explorers, scientists, and artists and influenced the founding of the Smithsonian. Today, you will find more than 300 places, species, and natural features named after Alexander von Humboldt, including a spot on the moon and not one, but two asteroids. Humboldt is, quite literally, out of this world.