Braunschweig: Schulbuchhandlung, 1790.
1st Edition. Hardcover. Very Good. Item #003770
8vo (155 x 100 mm). [i-v] vi-viii, [9-11] 12-126 pp. Contemporary thin cardboard, spine and front cover hand-lettered in ink, blue-dyed edges (some paper chipping at spine ends and joints, dust-soiling). Protected in a dark-blue roan pull-off case. Light even browning internally, occasional faint foxing, small ink spots to title and p. 34; a few annotations and ink corrections in text, in all crisp and clean throughout. Provenance: Johann Friedrich Gmelin; Theodor Wagner; Alexander von Humboldt; Adolph Lewisohn. Dedication copy of Alexander von Humboldt to his teacher Johann Friedrich Gmelin at Göttingen University, inscribed and signed on inner front-cover "Herrn Hofrath Gmelin / von seinem Schüler / A. von Humboldt". Further inscribed by von Humboldt below, but more than 60 years later in his well-known matured hand "Dieses Exemplar ist mir zu meinem 85sten Geburtstag von Herrn Theodor Wagner (Heidelberg, Nattergasse 255) gesandt worden, - eine zarte Aufmerksamkeit. AvHumboldt d. 14. Sept. 1854" (this copy was sent to me for my 85th birthday by Mr. Theodor Wagner, Heidelberg ..., - a delicate attention), accompanied by a small drawing in ink, likely in von Humboldt's hand. Further inscribed by him on the front cover "Alexander v Humboldt / Basalte am Rhein / 1790" and below added (in a different hand) "sehr selten". He also added his name under the printed word "der Verfasser" on the dedication page [iii] (a comparable copy presented by him to George Forster and now in the Humboldt Sammlung of the Stadt-Museum Berlin also got the added name under at this place). ----
FIRST EDITION OF THE FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND AN AMAZING ASSOCIATION COPY. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) studied physics, mathematics and languages at the University of Göttingen from 1789, where Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804) was one of his first teachers of geognosy and mineralogy. In September of the same year, Humboldt undertook a journey along the Rhine to explore the geological conditions there, including the basalt deposits. In his Mineralogische Beobachtungen, Humboldt comments on the doctrines of the time on the formation of rocks, neptunism and volcanism (also plutonism). One of the central controversies of German geological research at the beginning of the 19th century emerged from the two opposing theories, which Goethe also dealt with.
"At the climax of the dispute around 1790, when without naming the author also a small paper with the title Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein appeared. To the friends it identified itself as the work of Alexander von Humboldt by the letters 'H-t' at the end of the preface. Here, in his first independent publication, the young von Humboldt proves to be a faithful follower of Werner's neptunistic doctrine - especially concerning the genesis of basalts" (Fritz Krafft: Alexander von Humboldts "Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein" und die Neptunismus-Vulkanismus-Kontroverse um die Basalt-Genese. In: Studia Fribergensia (Beiträge zur Alexander-von-Humboldt-Forschung, Band 18), Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1994, pp. 117-150).
During his journey along the Rhine in 1789, Humboldt became fascinated by the columnar basalt formations that he saw in the region around the town of Bonn. Humboldt was particularly interested in the way that these formations were created, and he believed that they were the result of volcanic activity. He spent a great deal of time studying the basalt formations and the surrounding geological conditions, and he became convinced that the Rhine Valley had been the site of volcanic activity in the past. Humboldt's interest in volcanism and basalt continued throughout his life, and he went on to study other volcanic regions around the world, including the Andes Mountains in South America. He believed that the study of volcanism was important not only for understanding the Earth's geological history, but also for understanding the impact of volcanic activity on climate and human societies.
Alexander von Humboldt dedicated his first book, which was printed in a rather small run of 300 copies, to George Forster. George Forster was a British naturalist, ethnologist, and travel writer who had accompanied Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific from 1772 to 1775. Forster had also traveled extensively in Europe and had developed a keen interest in natural history and geology. He and Humboldt first met in Mainz in 1785 and quickly became close friends and intellectual collaborators. The dedication is also in recognition of his contributions to the field of natural history and as a gesture of friendship and gratitude. The dedication reads, in part: "To George Forster, the gifted and zealous friend of science, the friend of truth, the intrepid traveler who has explored the remotest corners of the world, and who, by his extensive knowledge of nature, has greatly advanced the study of science." Humboldt undertook a joint research trip with Forster from end of March to end of July 1790. This led from Mainz along the Lower Rhine to England and ended in Paris.
The association history of this copy in fact is amazing. Alexander von Humboldt had a close and formative relationship with his teacher Johann Friedrich Gmelin at the University of Göttingen. Gmelin was a prominent naturalist and mineralogist, and he recognized Humboldt's intellectual talents early on. Under Gmelin's guidance, Humboldt became interested in geology, mineralogy, and botany. Gmelin also introduced Humboldt to the work of the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, which would inspire Humboldt's later interest in biogeography and the unity of nature. In addition to his scientific guidance, Gmelin also provided Humboldt with personal support and encouragement. When Humboldt's father disapproved of his son's scientific pursuits and threatened to cut off his funding, Gmelin convinced him to continue supporting Humboldt's education. Humboldt remained in contact with Gmelin throughout his life, and he often acknowledged Gmelin's influence on his work. In fact, when Humboldt was asked about his greatest debt to any one individual, he named Gmelin without hesitation.
Humboldt gave this copy to his teacher Gmelin and the reasons are obvious, but what about Theodor Wagner, from whom Humboldt got his copy back more than 60 years later? We do not know how Wagner came into possession of our copy and whether he received it directly from Gmelin. The two men in fact met in the early 1820s when Humboldt visited Heidelberg, and they became friends and collaborators. Wagner was a professor of physiology and comparative anatomy at Heidelberg, and he shared Humboldt's interest in exploring the natural world. They worked together on several scientific projects, including a study of the nervous system of electric fish and an investigation of the effects of altitude on the human body. Their collaboration is documented in their extensive correspondence, which has been preserved and published in various collections, including "Alexander von Humboldt - Theodor Wagner Briefwechsel 1820-1858" edited by Hartmut Walravens and published in 2001. In addition to their scientific collaboration, Humboldt and Wagner also shared a commitment to political and social reform. Both men were supporters of liberal causes and participated in the political movements of their time.
Much later, our copy was acquired by Adolph Lewisohn (1849-1938), a Hamburg-born German immigrant who rose to become an investment banker, mining magnate and philanthropist in New York City. The Humboldt copy is listed on p. 60 of his Catalogue of the private library of Mr. Adolph Lewisohn, (New York: Privately printed, 1923). In an enclosed letter from Vladimir Gregorievitch Simkhovitch (1874-1959), an economist and professor of Economic History and Economics at Columbia University, to Lewisohn, dated June 26, 1911, the terms of the book transaction are fixed:
My dear Mr. Lewisohn: I have just communicated with the owner of the remarkable Dumboldt [sic] book. I told him of your offer, and I also told him that it should be hopeless to dispose of this or of any book during the summer. The owner therefore decided to accept your offer. I should like to say that I have never seen a more interesting "Association Book" in my life, and also that I am firmly convinced, that it is one of the greatest bargains that you or any man has ever bought. I shall ask you to be good enough to send the check of $200 addressed to Mr. V. G. Simkhovitch, Greenwich House, 26 Jones St. New York City, Yours very truly, V. G. Simkhovitch.
Simkhovitch here acts as an intermediary in the sale by the unknown previous owner to Adolph Lewisohn.
Literature: Klein, U. (2018). Die frühen Schriften. In: Ette, O. (eds) Alexander von Humboldt-Handbuch. J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart.
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