Who Were Humboldt and Ritter?
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and Carl Ritter (1779-1859) were two Germans whose combined travels and researches changed the whole concept of geography. Humboldt, was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and proponent of Romantic philosophy and science, who was born in Berlin, traveled widely, exploring South America between 1799 and 1804 and Central Asia in 1829.
As a scientist he was especially interested in the relationship of living things with their surroundings. He had a passion for correct, careful field observation. His two great books were an account of his American travels and Kosmos, a description of the physical geography of the earth. Humboldt’s quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt’s advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.
Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively in the Americas, exploring and describing them for the first time from a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. Humboldt was one of the first people to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular).
Humboldt resurrected the use of the word cosmos from the ancient Greek and assigned it to his multivolume treatise, Kosmos, in which he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. This important work also motivated a holistic perception of the universe as one interacting entity. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, in 1800 and again in 1831, based on observations generated during his travels.
Carl Ritter, who was born at Quedlinburg, regarded himself as Humboldt’s disciple. He also was a great observer, but confined his travels to Europe. He was the founder of scientific comparative geography, and his most important work was Die Erdkunde, which stressed the relationship between man and his natural surroundings. He also wrote papers giving geographical interpretations of history.
Along with Alexander von Humboldt, he is considered one of the founders of modern geography. From 1825 until his death, he occupied the first chair in geography at the University of Berlin. At the time of his death, Ritter had produced an astonishing amount of geographical literature contained in his “Erdkunde” alone. It amounts to 21 volumes comprising 19 parts which can be roughly divided into 6 sections
1. Africa (I) 1822
2. East Asia (II-VI) 1818-1836
3. West Asia (VII-XI) 1837-1844
4. Arabia (XII-XIII) 1846-1847
5. Sinai Peninsula (XIV-XVII) 1847-1848
6. Asia Minor (XVIII-XIX) 1850-1852
Ritter’s masterwork, the 19-volume Die Erdkunde im Verhältniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen (Geography in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind), written 1816–1859, developed at prodigious length the theme of the influence of the physical environment on human activity. It is an encyclopedia of geographical lore. Ritter unfolded and established the treatment of geography as a study and a science. His treatment was endorsed and adopted by all geographers.
The first volume of Die Erdkunde was completed in Berlin in 1816, and a part of it was published in the following year. The whole of the first volume did not appear until 1832, and the following volumes were issued from the press in rapid succession. Die Erdkunde was left incomplete at the time of Ritter’s death, covering only Asia and Africa.