Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/Sketch of Carl Ritter

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CARL RITTER was born at Quedlinburg, in Saxony, the birth-place of Klopstock, on the 7th of August, 1779. His father was physician in ordinary to the Abbess of the convent in that place, and was a man of noble character and gentle disposition who was held in high esteem by his fellow citizens. He died in the prime of life and left his widow destitute, with five children, Carl being then five years old. The helpless situation of the widow, a well-born, refined woman, awakened general sympathy. Salzmann, who was about establishing a school for young children in Schnepfenthal, heard of it and determined to adopt Carl as a gratuitous pupil and as his first scholar. Carl found this a second home, and remained at the school eleven years, or until it was time for him to go to the university. It was in this lovely Thuringian town that, looking upon the manifold shapes of mountain and plain, wood and field, he received his first impressions of the relations which exist between the configuration of the earth's surface and the life that is developed on it. Modern languages and the arts and sciences were the more prominent subjects of study at the Schnepfenthal school, the classics receiving a secondary consideration.

While here, and with no definite prospects for his future after he should leave the school, Herr Hallneg, a partner in the wealthy house of Bethmann at Frankfort-on-the-Main, visited the institution at Schnepfenthal, and was so prepossessed by Ritter's appearance that he offered to support him while he continued his studies, on condition that he should engage afterward to teach in his house. So Ritter in his seventeenth year went to the University of Halle, and was matriculated as a student in branches relating to finance, in connection with which he gave especial attention to statistics. He made many friends while at the university, and at the age of nineteen went into Hallneg's house as a private tutor, and there formed a friendship with the youngest son of the rich merchant, his pupil, which endured through his whole life. Several distinguished men were accustomed to visit this house, and intercourse with them had such a stimulating effect upon the young teacher that his abode there may be regarded as having been in a certain sense a prolongation of his university career. Chief among these men was the naturalist Sömmering, whose geniality and liberal knowledge gave him great influence. Another was Alexander von Humboldt, who made a deep impression on Ritter's mind. Full of enthusiasm, Ritter wrote to his old teacher Gutsmuth: "It has now been eight days that I have enjoyed the happiness of being associated with Alexander von Humboldt. He is one of the most interesting men I have ever seen. It was my privilege to become acquainted with him on the first evening of his visit, and I have since enjoyed most precious hours in his society." At the same time Ritter was devoting himself to a diversity of studies, particularly to the pursuit of those branches, such as the classical languages and literatures, to which he had previously given a lesser share of attention. For this purpose he attended the gymnasium at Frankfort, and sat on the school-bench with his pupil Hallneg. His inclination toward geographical and historical studies did not, however, cease to preponderate; and, in order to make himself fully at home in these subjects, he not only read the most important works upon them with great care, but also made frequent excursions in the neighborhood of Frankfort for purposes of independent observation. A happy skill in drawing the objects of interest in the landscape was of great help to him.

His first geographical work, consisting of six maps of Europe, was published in 1806; it was followed in 1811 by a Geography of Europe in two volumes. These two works, his first efforts on a field in which he was afterward to be a master, already gave indications of that comprehensive grasp of geographical principles for which he afterward became distinguished.

In 1807, accompanied by his pupils, he started on the first of a series of journeys undertaken for purposes of study and investigation. This time he visited Italy and Switzerland, In Switzerland he formed the acquaintance of Pestalozzi, Pictet, and De Candolle, living in Geneva a year. In Italy he enlisted Thorwaldsen, Overbeck, and Cornelius among his friends. In 1813 he went with his pupils to the University of Göttingen, where he had an opportunity to make use of the treasures of the library for his great geographical work. He still regularly visited the lecture-rooms of the professors and attended the different colleges. After two years at Göttingen he went to Berlin, and there, in 1817, published the first part of his "Erdkunde im Verhältnisse zur Natur und Geschichte des Menschen, oder allgemeine Vergleichende Geographie als sichere Grundlage des Studiums und des Unterrichts in physikalischen und historischen Wissenschaften (Geography in Relation to Nature and the History of Men, or General Comparative Geography as the Secure Basis of Study and Instruction in Physical and Historical Knowledge), a work in which the treatment of geography was completely transformed, and the study was raised to the rank of a true science. This part included Africa and a portion of Asia. A year afterward appeared the second part, in which Asia was concluded. In this work he delineated the form and surface of the earth, in its horizontal and vertical features, with great accuracy. Taking a comprehensive view, he considered the peculiarities of the different parts of the earth's surface in their relations to each other and to the earth as a whole, and regarded them as the underlying basis of all living existence, and the foundation and condition of the development of single peoples and of the whole human race in its manifold changes of relation.

In 1819 Hitter was appointed Professor of History in the gymnasium at Frankfort; but he soon exchanged this position for a higher one, for in the next year he accepted an invitation to Berlin, where he was appointed to the chair of geography in the military school and the university. Here begins the second great division of his life, in which he could enjoy both in the department of scientific research and as a teacher the ripe fruits of his earlier activity. Berlin, where a new, fresh life was then beginning to beat, where he was associated with Alexander von Humboldt as his hearty friend, was the right place for him to work, and he was fully conscious of it. After Prince Albert became enrolled among his scholars, he was introduced to the circle of the Crown-Princes, and afterward to King Frederick William IV., before whom he gave lectures on geography. In 1825 he became director of studies to the Cadet corps, and in 1828 founder and first President of the Berlin Geographical Society.

Ritter was accustomed, during his autumn vacations, to take considerable journeys, which not only gave him mental and bodily recreation, but also assisted in the advancement of his geographical studies. The most extensive and important of these journeys were to Greece and Constantinople, and back through Hungary; to Paris and Southern France; and to England, Sweden, and Norway. He afterward concentrated his whole attention upon geography, giving up for this purpose all employment that was not connected with it. From 1832 the series of volumes on Asia appeared in rapid succession; the nineteenth volume was finished only a few weeks before his death. With the progress of this work, his fame increased from year to year, and his connections and the influence which he exerted upon the progress of geographical research were extended to all the countries of the civilized world. He became one of the most important personal centers in the whole domain of geographical science, not less on account of the incomparable richness of his knowledge than on account of the living interest which he took in all current questions. In this position he did not fail to receive distinctions of every kind. As a teacher he acquired a brilliant clientage. When he published his first lecture on general geography in 1820, it is said that he had not a single scholar; afterward the largest lecture-rooms were not sufficient to hold his classes, and at Berlin it became the fashion to attend his lectures. As a teacher, and in all his personal relations, he possessed a strong attractive influence. Kramer, his biographer, says that no one ever approached him without meeting the most kindly reception, that he was ready to recognize every honestly meant effort, to encourage, to help with counsel and support. No man ever had less of egotism. His physical condition was generally good through the whole of his long life. He had a strong constitution, which was hardened by exercise in his youth and strengthened by the pedestrian excursions taken on his journeys. The weaknesses of age began to appear in his later years, and, on account of them, he often visited the springs of Teplich with good effects. He made a visit to these springs in 1859, the year of his death, but returned no stronger, and died on the 28th of September. After his death were published his "Geschichte der Erdkunde und der Entdeckimgen," 1861; "Allgemeine Erdkunde," 1862; and "Europa," 1863.