September 14th 1869: the global celebrations of Alexander von Humboldt’s centenary

Alexander von Humbolt is not exactly obscure: he is much celebrated in the Germanic speaking world and is still commemorated by an eponymous current, mountains, a penguin and much else. Yet his fame is not nearly so widespread as it was in 1869, as this extract from Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt bio The Invention of Nature reveals. Sic transit gloria mundi.

On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth, Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world. There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas. In Melbourne and Adelaide people came together to listen to speeches in honour of Humboldt, as did groups in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. There were festivities in Moscow where Humboldt was called the ‘Shakespeare of sciences’, and in Alexandria in Egypt where guests partied under a sky illuminated with fireworks. The greatest commemorations were in the United States, where from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and from Chicago to Charleston, the nation saw street parades, sumptuous dinners and concerts.

In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined a march that was more than a mile long. President Ulysses Grant attended the Humboldt celebrations in Pittsburgh together with 10,000 revellers who brought the city to a standstill. In New York City the cobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colourful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honour a man ‘whose fame no nation can claim’ as the New York Times’s front page reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to the speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colourful Chinese lanterns. Let us imagine him, one speaker said, ‘as standing on the Andes’ with his mind soaring above all. Every speech across the world emphasized that Humboldt had seen an ‘inner correlation’ between all aspects of nature. In Boston, Emerson told the city’s grandees that Humboldt was ‘one of those wonders of the world’. His fame, the Daily News in London reported, was ‘in some sort bound up with the universe itself’. In Germany there were festivities in Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Frankfurt and many other cities. The greatest German celebrations were in Berlin, Humboldt’s hometown, where despite torrential rain 80,000 people assembled. The authorities had ordered offices and all government agencies to close for the day. As the rain poured down and gusts chilled the air, the speeches and singing nonetheless continued for hours

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