Expanding the Frontiers of American Science: Alexander von Humboldt's Networks of Knowledge

This book project seeks to answer the question as to why Alexander von Humboldt’s six-week visit to a geographically limited part of the U.S. East Coast in 1804 led to his unprecedented impact on the development of American sciences across the expanding nation. How did he become one of the most prominent global intellectuals of the nineteenth century, a success attested to by the number of U.S. place-names and geographical features which still bear his name? My argument is that this exceptional fame resulted from his being extremely well-connected at several important layers of American society and thus he became a conduit for the production, circulation and implemetation of knowledge across multiple fields. The book will show how the Prussian explorer created the conditions for how we do science today, with a strong eye on collaborative science, the globalization of knowledge and the constant exchange of knowledge through scholarly networks? It furhermore discusses why his visit to the United States in 1804 happened to ocurr at the perfect moment, not only when after the Lousiana purchase the government was in need of precise geographical and statistical data about the newly acquired territory, but also at a moment when the nation was ready start its ascend as a leading power in the field of sciences. However, the goal of this book is not only to explain his importance for the past, but also to show the modern implications of Humboldtian science, and to tie him to several important topics of our modern interconnected world, such as social media or open science.


On Humboldt's tracks: Cultural relations with Latin America

 

Research Programme “Culture and Foreign Policy” for the Institute for Foreign Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)

On the occasion of the Humboldt anniversary in 2019 this study examines Humboldt's potential for German foreign cultural and educational policy, as well as opportunities and challenges for a thematic season in Latin America. It is undisputed that even today this Prussian scholar is of great importance for international cultural and scientific relations between Germany and the countries of his expedition – Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. However, the question is what projects and event formats are most suitable for which countries, and where there is a need for communication. On the one hand, a look at the historical context of his voyage of exploration should contribute to a better understanding of its significance in the contemporary framework; and, on the other, explain the reasons for the specific reception of Humboldt in each country, so that the organisation of activities can be adapted to these regional differences.

In the frame of this research project, questionnaires have been elaborated and sent to the Goethe Institutes located in Latin America as well as to various Humboldt experts, other academics or representatives of cultural institutions, containing the following type of questions:

  • What is Humboldt's most important legacy to Latin America today?
  • How does his perception differ between the countries in the Americas?
  • What are the critical issues regarding Humboldt in those regions?
  • What would be the specific topics that could arouse interest for the commemoration of Humboldt's 250th anniversary?
  • What kind of cultural, scientific or artistic activity could work best for certain groups?
  • What projects, themes and formats are appropriate for which target groups?
  • Where do the challenges and risks of a Humboldtian season lie in Latin America?

In order to discuss these aspects in Latin America, a research trip has been undertaken to Colombia and Ecuador, where several formats of interaction have been offered to different academic and non-academic groups in the society, such as workshops, lectures or interviews.


Europe and the American West in the 19th century: Globalization of Science through Transatlantic Networks of Knowledge

In the setting of US westward expansion, from the start of the 1804 Lewis & Clark expedition until the 1890s, when the frontier concept had expanded to the Pacific, numerous European geographers, geologists, mineralogists, botanists and others participated in the exploration of the vast territories of the trans-Mississippi West.

Some undertook their travels either as individuals or leading independent exploration voyages, such as the naturalist P. Wilhelm of Württemberg, who in 1829 discovered the sources of the Missouri River; the surveyor D. Thompson, who navigated the Columbia River in 1811; Baron von Richthofen, a geologist discovering goldfields in California from 1862 to 1868; or the archaeologist A. F. A. Bandelier, who studied the indigenous cultures of the American Southwest. A large number of explorers formed part of important US government sponsored expeditions, such as the cartographer C. Preuss who accompanied J. C. Fremont on his exploratory expeditions to the West in the 1840s, the topographer F. W. von Egloffstein, known for his exploration of the Grand Canyon, and the geographer J.-N. Nicollet, who mapped the Upper Mississippi River basin during the 1830s as part of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Several participated in extensive US exploration projects, such as the Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853-1855), the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (1867-1872), or collaborated with the US Geological Survey.

This important but rather neglected chapter of the History of Science in Europe raises the following questions: What was the role European science played in the scientific reconnaissance of the American West in the 19th century? What type of knowledge was produced by these scientist-explorers? What were the processes of knowledge circulation in this information flow between the West, the centers of learning on the US East Coast and in Europe? How did the implementation of this knowledge in emerging US sciences differ from European scholarly traditions? And finally, what role did women travelers or naturalists play in this process?

The goal of this project is to obtain an integral coherent vision of the processes of knowledge production, circulation and implementation between Europe and the US through the study of the structure and dynamics of different types of scientific networks.