In his lifetime Alexander von Humboldt was a major international celebrity - only Napoleon, it was said, was more well-known. He was born into the Prussian nobility in 1769 and destined for a career in the civil service. In his twenties he combined his position in the Ministry of Mines with his own investigative studies in science, geology and botany. He travelled around Europe, meeting many other adventurers of his age - including Bligh, Banks and Bougainville ¿ and spent many stimulating months with Goethe in Weimar and Jena. He inherited a fortune on the death of his mother and immediately began planning a major expedition. Napoleon's activities thwarted him at every turn, but he succeeded, rather surprisingly, to gain the permission of Carlos IV to visit the Spanish colonies in South America, and set off with the French botanist Aim¿onpland and many boxes full of scientific instruments, dodging British warships en route. These five extraordinary years of exploration and research gave Humboldt material for a lifetime's writing. But the expenses of publication exhausted his funds and after more than twenty years living in Paris he was obliged to return to Prussia as a chamberlain at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was hardly to his taste. He did manage one more major expedition across Russia, when he was sixty years old. Tirelessly energetic, he never stopped working and writing. He was mourned worldwide when he died at the age of nearly ninety in 1859.