Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt also lived and worked in Bayreuth in his day.

Alex­ander von Humboldt and Bayreuth 1792 to 1797 (by Stephan Müller)

I may be going to Bayreuth, to the Fich­tel­ge­birge, in just three weeks. I have the hono­urable task of inves­ti­ga­ting the natural features of both margra­viate terri­to­ries from a geogno­stic and mining point of view; for the time being, I have only eight weeks to travel around and give the minister a general over­view. What will happen after that, whether I will stay there comple­tely (and become a mining director!!) or go to Silesia, is comple­tely uncer­tain at the moment.
Alex­ander von Humboldt writing to Karl Frei­es­leben, Berlin 4th June, 1792 (In “Jugend­briefe”, p. 190) [1]

Alexander von Humboldt (Selbstportrait, 1814)
Alex­ander von Humboldt (Self-portrait, 1814)

Alex­ander von Humboldt’s sense of exci­te­ment was very evident in his letter dated 4 June 1792 to his child­hood friend Johann Karl Frei­es­leben. He had only just completed his studies at the Frei­berg Mining Academy and already a high-ranking and respon­sible post awaited him in Bayreuth.
For only a few weeks before, Margrave Karl Alex­ander had ceded his two prin­ci­pa­li­ties of Ansbach and Bayreuth to Prussia in return for a life annuity of 300,000 florins a year. Karl August Frei­herr von Harden­berg was appointed as governor of the new Prus­sian province. In order to estab­lish Prus­sian law and order as quickly as possible, he brought top Prus­sian offi­cials and outstan­ding graduates in all fields to Bayreuth.
Harden­berg and the minister respon­sible for Prus­sian mining, Fried­rich Anton Frei­herr von Heinitz, saw the young Alex­ander von Humboldt, who had just been appointed assessor cum voto in the Prus­sian mining depart­ment, as the ideal man to inspect the ailing mining industry in the Fichtelgebirge.

Humboldt’s first inventory

Alex­ander von Humboldt’s first assign­ment was a survey of the mines and smel­ters in the new Prus­sian provinces. On 26 August 1792, Humboldt presented a compre­hen­sive report from his inspec­tion tour to the Barons von Heinitz and von Harden­berg — first orally, later in writing.
They were impressed by Humboldt’s precise expl­ana­tions, analyses and concepts for impro­ve­ment and imme­dia­tely put him in charge of mining and metall­urgy in Bayreuth.
Full of pride, Humboldt reported to his friend Johann Karl Frei­es­leben in a letter dated 27 August 1792:
Yesterday I was appointed Royal Head of Mining in both of the Fran­co­nian prin­ci­pa­li­ties. All my wishes, good Frei­es­leben, have now been fulfilled. From now on my life will be devoted enti­rely to prac­tical mining and mine­ra­logy.
Humboldt writing to Karl Frei­es­leben, Bayreuth, 27th  August 1792
(In “Jugend­briefe”, p. 209) – high­lighted by Humboldt [2]

Taking up duty in Bayreuth

On 30 May 1793, he began his service as Head of Miner in the Prus­sian Upper Mining Depart­ment in Bayreuth.
Even the Bayreuth city archives can no longer deter­mine in which buil­ding the Upper Mining Depart­ment was housed. It is conceivable that Humboldt’s offices were in the former margra­vial state cham­bers, whose four large office buil­dings belong to today’s govern­ment of Upper Fran­conia. It is also possible, however, that they were in the Old Palace, where the Mining Autho­rity of Nort­hern Bavaria is located today.

Bayreuth, Kanz­lei­straße: Humboldt‘s offices were either situated in the former margra­vial state cham­bers (on the right) or in the Old Palace (in the back­ground), where the Mining Autho­rity of Nort­hern Bavaria is also located today.

Humboldt writes to Frei­es­leben from Bayreuth:
I have earned so much acco­lade with my mine reports that I have been given sole direc­tor­ship of mining in the three mining districts of Naila, Wunsiedel and Gold­kro­nach.[3]

On horse­back, he visited and inspected the mining districts and their tech­nical faci­li­ties, and devoted all his energy to the mining offices entrusted to him. One after the other, in February and March, Alex­ander von Humboldt carried out the general inspec­tions of Gold­kro­nach, of the Prus­sian enclave of Kauls­dorf, of Naila and of Wunsiedel, which took him around a week. In the opera­tional analyses, he quickly iden­ti­fied the defi­ci­en­cies and provided sugges­tions for impro­ve­ment. The measures were imple­mented successfully. Within a very short period of time, Humboldt succeeded in making the ailing mines profitable.

Humboldt was not only praised by his supe­riors, but he also enjoyed great popu­la­rity among the miners, whose respect he had gained. He tried to improve people’s stan­dard of living and secu­rity with funds for widows and orphans of miners who had suffered acci­dents, and ensured that surpluses from the mining offices were paid into a miners’ welfare fund to provide finan­cial support for miners in need and to provide further trai­ning for ordi­nary miners.

The first school of mining

In November 1793, he founded a free royal mining school in Steben from his own funds in order to educate young miners and train skilled miners.

For 30 guil­ders, a bushel of grain and free wood and light, Georg Hein­rich Spörl from Naila was employed as a teacher,[4] a young and clever shift foreman who not only had very good specia­list know­ledge but also unders­tood the dialect of the Fichtelgebirge.

You could say that this estab­lished the first voca­tional school in Germany 225 years ago, where students between the ages of eleven and 16, but also some consider­ably older miners, eagerly took part in the lessons. In no other mining district at that time were young men from the mining industry given such a solid and prac­tical educa­tion as in Steben.
To this purpose, Alex­ander von Humboldt provided text­books and refe­rence works that he had written himself, and even desi­gned hand­outs, sket­ches and models for the lessons. [5] 

The curri­culum included:

  • Arith­metic for miners
  • Geology and moun­tain science
  • History of mining law
  • Basic know­ledge about under­ground water
  • Weather and local history
  • Depo­sits
  • Hand­wri­ting and spelling

Schoo­ling ended with a public exami­na­tion and awards for the best pupils, who found employ­ment as miners in the Fich­tel­ge­birge and Fran­ken­wald areas.

Alex­ander von Humboldt’s wander­lust prevailed

From the middle of 1794 onwards, Humboldt’s desire for exten­sive travel and rese­arch became more and more appa­rent in his letters. He tells Fried­rich Schiller in a letter dated 6 August 1794:
Perhaps I will soon be able to break away comple­tely and devote myself enti­rely to the great scien­tific work I have set myself and which I am pursuing with great effort.

On 26 March 1795, Alex­ander von Humboldt asked to be reli­eved of his duties as head of mining. Karl August von Harden­berg and Fried­rich Anton von Heinitz were able to prevent this resi­gna­tion with a promo­tion to senior head of mining and more freedom for scien­tific travel.
However, Alex­ander von Humboldt wasn’t able to shake off his wander­lust. I am now seriously prepa­ring myself for a long journey outside Europe[6], he wrote to Abraham Gottlob Werner at the end of 1796.
Secretly, he had probably known for some time that the posi­tion in Bayreuth could not be the fulfilment of all his wishes. It is a pity for Bayreuth that his wander­lust got the upper hand in the end, but also fort­u­nate, other­wise his great later insights would have remained lost to the world!

Thus, at the end of December 1796, Humboldt left the mining service at his own request. He left Bayreuth on 24 February 1797.

Karl August Frei­herr von Harden­berg show­ered him with unqua­li­fied praise. In his memo­randum on the admi­nis­tra­tion of the prin­ci­pa­li­ties of Bayreuth-Ansbach, he wrote that Humboldt’s services to the Bayreuth mining industry were tremen­dous [7].

GEO-Tour on Alex­ander von Humboldt as a mining offi­cial in Fran­conia now complete

To mark the 150th anni­ver­sary of Alex­ander von Humboldt’s death, the GEO Tour was devised and imple­mented in 2019. A total of 18 infor­ma­tion panels explain the work of the young Prus­sian mining offi­cial Alex­ander von Humboldt at his former places of work in the Fich­tel­ge­birge, in the Fran­co­nian Forest and now also in Bayreuth.
Nowa­days, in Bayreuth’s city centre, in the cour­tyard of the Old Palace, at the busy passa­geway to the “Ehrenhof”, near the Mining Autho­rity, which is now located in the rear buil­ding of the Govern­ment of Upper Fran­conia, there is a plaque to the “Upper Mining Depart­ment of Bayreuth”. The office was a port of call for Humboldt, who, as a mining offi­cial, was commis­sioned by the Prus­sian king to inspect the mori­bund mining industry in Fran­conia from 1792 to 1796.
Another infor­ma­tion board awaits visi­tors at the entrance to the Ecolo­gical-Bota­nical Garden of the Univer­sity of Bayreuth. It is well known that Humboldt, after his prompt resi­gna­tion from the civil service, set off for the hitherto little-known world, to South America, to explore nature there. His approach of coll­ec­ting and iden­ti­fying plants and animals as well as surveying and analy­sing the geography and atmo­sphere is the basis of modern sciences such as ecology and geoe­co­logy. While working as a mining offi­cial in Fran­conia, he estab­lished the foun­da­tions for his syste­matic approach based on the recor­ding of coll­ected data.

Tafel Humboldt Bayreurth


• [1] Ich habe so große Pläne dort geschmiedet – Alex­ander von Humboldt in Franken, Frank Holl und Eber­hard Schulz-Lüpertz, page 34
• [2] Ich habe so große Pläne dort geschmiedet – Alex­ander von Humboldt in Franken, Frank Holl und Eber­hard Schulz-Lüpertz, page 49
• [3] Alex­ander von Humboldt und das Berg­wesen, Erich Burisch, 1959, Archiv für Geschichte von Ober­franken 39, pages 245–291
• [4], [5], [7] ALEXANDER HUMBOLDT IN FRANKEN, Rudolf Endres, Mittei­lungen der Frän­ki­schen Gesell­schaft Vol. 46, 1999
• [6] Lecture “Unge­heure Tiefe des Denkens, uner­reich­barer Scharf­blick und die seltenste Schnel­lig­keit der Kombi­na­tion” (Immense depth of thought, unat­tainable percep­ti­ve­ness and the rarest speed of combi­na­tion) on Alex­ander von Humboldt by the science histo­rian Herbert Pieper, Alex­ander-von-Humboldt-Forschungs­stelle of the Berlin-Bran­den­bur­gi­schen Akademie, on 14th Oktober 2000 in Bad Steben. Source: Uni Potsdam




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