He was a visionary thinker, a daring explorer and the most famous scientist of his age (1769–1859). He described nature as a web of life where everything was connected – at a time when other scientists looked through the narrow lens of classification. He described Earth as a living organism and pre–dated James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory by more than a century. ‘Nature is a living whole,’ Humboldt said, ‘not a dead aggregate.’ He predicted harmful human–induced climate change in 1800.
Today he’s almost forgotten in the English–speaking world, but his legacy is enormous. More places, plants and animals are named after him than anyone else, from the Humboldt Current to the penguin and several mountain ranges, but he’s also the founder and populariser of ‘infographics’ – long before the term was used. Not only was he at the forefront of map–making, he was also the first to present his scientific data using stunning visualisations. He championed topographical maps and hachure techniques as well as inventing isotherms, the lines which we see today on our weather maps.
In 1799, Humboldt set off on a five–year exploration of Latin America – a voyage that shaped his thinking and that made him legendary across the world. He ventured deep into the rainforest and crossed the Andes, carrying dozens of scientific instruments to record everything. Humboldt was obsessed with measurements but also believed in the power of imagination. His first and most stunning depiction of nature as an interconnected whole was his so–called Naturgemälde – a German term that can mean ‘painting of nature’ but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness. It was, as Humboldt later explained, a ‘microcosm on one page’.
His three–foot by two–foot Naturgemälde depicted Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador that he had climbed, in cross–section and on it Humboldt showed plants distributed according to their altitudes. To the left and right of the mountain he placed several columns that provided related details and information, ranging from temperature, gravity, and humidity to the blueness of the sky – again all related to the height of the mountain. The variety but also the simplicity of the scientific information was unprecedented. Humboldt showed the relationship between the elevation and the distribution of plants – and throughout his life, he used these kind of ‘infographics’.
Interestingly Humboldt had been inspired by William Playfair’s charts that showed England’s national debt. Playfair had used graphics, colour coding and pie charts to illustrate economic data and Humboldt translated this method for his own work. He turned tables of numbers into visual language. In 1817, for example, he published an essay on climate for which he invented isotherms. Until then meteorological data had been collected in long tables of temperatures – endless lists of different geographical places and their climatic conditions which gave precise temperatures but were difficult to compare. One look at Humboldt’s isotherm map revealed a new world of patterns that hugged the Earth in wavy belts. Humboldt believed that this was the foundation of what he called ‘vergleichende Klimatologie’ – comparative climatology.
During his long career Humboldt worked together with 50 artists who transformed his field sketches and data into spectacular maps and engravings. Such as the maps that showed the subterraneous connections of volcanoes and those that revealed transportation and exports of precious metals along the imperial trade routes.
He also collaborated with Heinrich Berghaus who produced an atlas that accompanied Humboldt’s bestselling book Cosmos. Berghaus’s Physikalischer Atlas included maps that showed the distribution of plants but also the occurrences of earthquakes across the world.
Already in 1807, Humboldt wrote: I thought that if my Naturgemälde were capable of suggesting unexpected analogies to those who study its details, it would be capable of speaking to the imagination and providing the pleasure that comes from contemplating a beneficial as well as majestic nature.’ He believed in the power of learning and wrote many books that were aimed at a general audience. ‘With knowledge comes thought,’ he said, and with thought comes ‘power’. One of Humboldt’s greatest achievements was to make science accessible and popular. He did so by using a simple and non–scientific language as well as through infographics. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians. ‘There is not a text–book of geography or a school atlas in the hands of our children today, which does not bear… the imprint of his great mind’, said the scientist Louis Agassiz in 1869 in Boston, during the centennial celebrations of Humboldt’s birth.