Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Why We Need a New History of Exploration

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Today, just some announcements:

Common-Place, the online history journal,  just published my article, “Why We Need a New History of Exploration.” You can read it here.

SciCafe, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is presenting “Darwin on Facebook: How Culture Transforms Human Evolution” a presentation by anthropologist Peter Richerson.  “SciCafe features cutting-edge science, cocktails, and conversation and takes place on the first Wednesday of every month. For more information, please visit amnh.org/scicafe

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) opens its new exhibition Hidden Histories of Exploration today in London. The exhibition website is worth checking out. I hope to be doing a more extensive write-up of the exhibition (and curator Felix Driver) soon.

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7 Comments»

  Phil Clements wrote @

“Put differently, when nineteenth-century American explorers left home in pursuit of discovery, who did they see in their mind’s eye?”

An analysis of the Fortieth Parallel Survey (1867) and the early USGS (1879) might illuminate this issue.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Phil: Interesting. What’s your take on the survey and USGS?

  Phil Clements wrote @

Well, leaders of the California Geo Survey, the 40th Parallel Survey, and the early USGS had ties to Europe. Josiah Whitney completed his geological training on the continent. Clarence King attended lectures by Louis Agassiz (who studied under Humboldt in Paris) after the latter moved to Harvard.

King was also a student of James Dwight Dana at the Sheffield Scientific School, who himself spent four years aboard the United States Exploring Expedition with Charles Wilkes.

From preliminary readings in the mid to late 19th century, what strikes me as most relevant to your article is that no one is talking about Lewis and Clark. If Lewis and Clark were such a strong cultural symbol, one would think folks like King would roll out their names in order to substantiate/justify/trumpet their own projects. But, in his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), King only mentions Lewis once in passing and Clark not at all.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Phil: interesting points! I knew that Fremont was a big Humboldt fan, and that Muir and King both took on aspects of a Humboldtian ethos, but I didn’t know the links were so broad and deep. Will you be coming to HSS in Phoenix?

  Phil Clements wrote @

I am visiting some archaeological sites on that weekend in Arizona, so there is a good chance my wife and I will stop by for a day.

I’ve never been, before. Are there mixers in the evenings after the panels?

  Tom Rea wrote @

Fresh from reading The Humboldt Current by Aaron Sachs I found your good article today and like it very much, especially your critique of manned space flight as being more about pride than science.

Do you know any scholarship that takes up Fremont-Humboldt connections? I wrote at some length about Fremont a few years ago (see, e.g. Common-place 4:4, “The Pathfinder’s Lost Instruments”) but knew nearly nothing then about Humboldt. Perhaps the Laura Walls book touches on this?

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Hi Tom,

I know your article well. I really enjoyed it, especially the harrowing business of dealing with barometers on mountains. I gave a talk a couple of years ago about scientific surveys of the Appalachians – in particular the work of Arnold Guyot of Princeton. I’m still amazed that he got such good altitude measurements hacking his way through the brush day after day. I don’t know about any secondary work that looks at Fremont-Humboldt specifically. My hunch is that Aaron might know more- Laura’s new work is on Cosmos which might be too late for this- I’m not sure how early she goes. The other person you might want to try talking to is Susan Schulten at University of Denver. Her latest work involves Humboldt and takes her earlier into the 19th century.


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