Dissertation Research

Carl Blechen, “Walzwerk Neustadt-Eberswald” (1830)

My dissertation—“Nature’s Working World: Mining, Travel, and Environment from Forster to Humboldt and Germany to Spanish America”—studies the relationship between science, industry, and nature-aesthetics in Central Europe and Spanish America ca. 1770 – ca. 1850. This study takes a fresh perspective on Georg Forster (1754-1794) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), two figures celebrated for their global travels and holistic conceptions of nature, by viewing them on (and under) the ground as they traveled through and worked in the hard rock mining industries of Germany and, in Humboldt’s case, Mexico. Resituating these cosmopolitan travelers in local, industrial settings shows how views of nature at the turn of the nineteenth century cannot be fully understood within the traditional dichotomy between Enlightened utilitarians and Romantic ecologists. Rather, this project draws out the unfamiliar sentimental world of late-eighteenth-century resource extraction, particularly Forster’s conception of mining as an enterprise that worked at the delicate interface between the human and the natural. Turning to Humboldt, I demonstrate how late-eighteenth-century mining promoted practices of mobility and vertical thinking, which shaped his sciences of cartography and plant geography. Forster and Humboldt’s ways of knowing nature were intricately bound to their engagement in its shaping and exploitation. Through them a broader history takes form, showing how views of nature—both aesthetic and scientific—emerged within the working world of mining around 1800, amidst transformations at once intellectual and industrial.