In the early nineteenth century, geographical organizations were formed in several European and North American towns to share and spread information. Paris (1821), Berlin (1828), London (1830), St. Petersburg (1845), and New York City (1845) were among the earliest (1851).
Royal patronage and strong backing from the commercial, diplomatic, and military elites were common in many European civilizations. They gathered and published data, funded trips, and organized monthly meetings where returning explorers could discuss their results or argue about technical concerns like mapping. The commercial and imperial mentality of the nineteenth century was based on these civilizations.
Mountains and Foothills First, consider the world’s highest geographical structures: mountains. A mountain is a landform that rises dramatically above its surroundings, usually with steep slopes and a small peak area. Mountains are more often found as extended chains or ranges rather than occurring singly.
Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, is merely one of the Himalayan Mountain Range’s many peaks. Mountains cover 20% of the Earth’s surface and may be found on all seven continents.
A succession of “piedmont,” or foothills, may be seen at the base of several of these mountains. These are modest elevation changes that serve as a transition from plains to mountains. As you get out from the mountains, you’ll notice distinct hills.
Hills are described as elevated portions of the Earth’s surface, similar to mountains, but are typically less steep and not relatively as high. There is no formal distinction between hills and mountains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Hills were once defined as peaks of fewer than 1,000 feet in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, by the mid-twentieth century, both countries had dropped the distinction.
Plateaus are another characteristic of height. A plateau is a highland region that is elevated substantially above its surroundings. Dissected plateaus and volcanic plateaus are the two main kinds. A dissected plateau is produced by upward movement in the Earth’s crust caused by the gradual collision of tectonic plates. In contrast, a volcanic plateau is generated by a series of minor volcanic eruptions that accumulate over time. Although plateaus are higher in height than the surrounding landscape, they are strikingly flat compared to mountain ranges.
Mesas are another type of flat-topped elevation. A mesa is a small, flat-topped mountain or hill surrounded by steep escarpments and rises sharply above the surrounding plain. Mesas are made up of layers of more challenging rock that are topped with flat-lying soft sedimentary rocks. The long-lasting strata function as a caprock, forming a flat top.
Valleys can be found between some of these high buildings. A valley is an extended depression on the Earth’s surface that is usually drained by rivers and can be found on plains or between hill and mountain ranges. Rift valleys are deep valleys formed by tectonic plate movement, whereas gorges are relatively narrow, deep valleys with a similar look.
Plains A plain is any generally flat section of the Earth’s surface with moderate slopes and modest local relief, moving away from all the hills and depressions. Plains range in size from a few acres to hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. The smallest is approximately 10 acres, and the biggest covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. Rather than tectonic action, the bulk of the world’s most extensive plains were created by erosion and the deposition of soil and rocks.
Deserts are one of the most diverse geographical characteristics, and they are recognized for being some of the driest locations on the planet. Deserts are defined by the quantity of precipitation that falls each year, less than 10 inches. This results in a severe, dry climate in which most plants and animals would perish. Most of the world’s land surface is dry or semi-arid, including the majority of the polar areas, which are often referred to as polar deserts or frigid deserts.
Basins are depressions or dips in the Earth’s surface, similar to valleys. The region drained by a river and all of its tributaries is known as a river drainage basin. The Amazon Basin, which spans over 6 million square kilometers and delivers 55 million gallons of water every second to the Atlantic Ocean, is the world’s most extensive river basin.
Ocean basins, formed by tectonic action, are the world’s biggest depressions, reaching depths of up to 5 kilometers. The margins of ocean basins are formed by the edges of continents, known as continental shelves.
Oceans are described as large basins of saltwater that are connected by continuous bodies of water. Oceans cover nearly 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. Although there is only one “World Ocean,” it is split into five sections: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern (Antarctic), and the Arctic.
Seas are subcategories of the many oceans. Smaller, partly landlocked parts of the ocean and other big, entirely landlocked saltwater lakes are also referred to as seas.
Flowing inland, a lake is defined as any reasonably big body of slowly moving or standing water that fills a significant inland basin. Freshwater and saltwater lakes exist, although freshwater lakes are more numerous.
Rivers are naturally flowing streams of water, generally freshwater, that flow towards another body of water, such as an ocean, sea, lake, or another river. Snowmelt, rainfall, and runoff are all channeled by rivers.
Wetlands may occur as rivers discharge their water and sediment into another body of water, forming wetlands known as deltas. Swamps and marshes are examples of other types of wetlands. The vegetation that develops there frequently defines the distinction between them. A marsh is a wetland with no “woody” vegetation, whereas swamps feature woody and non-woody species.
Canals Humans create the final geographical feature we’ll look at: the canal. Stated, a canal is an artificial waterway that connects two bodies of water for irrigation or boating. The Panama Canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between North and South America, is one example.
Geography and education A small group of 19th-century French and German researchers developed the basic features of geography, which impacted future developments in the United Kingdom and the United States. The discipline has grown and evolved significantly since 1945 while maintaining its focus on people, places, and environments. Geography is one of the few academic subjects to have emerged at universities due to pressure to develop individuals who could teach it in schools, notably in Europe.
As the need for geographic information grew, more people needed a solid grounding in geography. There was also a growing understanding of geography’s role in forming national identities by bringing people’s attention to their circumstances through comparisons with other settings and peoples. Citizenship required geographic knowledge, especially if it allegedly demonstrated the superiority of one’s people and surroundings.
The connections between geography and mercantilism, imperialism, and citizenship justify arguments for geographical education in schools. Geographic societies, for example, pushed successfully for their topic to be included in the universal school curriculum, particularly in northwestern Europe. The Geographical Association in the United Kingdom, for example, continues to emphasize the discipline’s instructional function.
To keep geography taught in schools, initiatives to educate teachers were needed and organizations where geographical information could be formalized and scholarship promoted. Societies petitioned to ensure that geography had a presence at universities to give it academic legitimacy. By the end of the nineteenth century, when European imperialism was at its peak, some of this campaigning had succeeded.
A royal edict in Prussia, for example, created professorships of geography in ten institutions in 1875. The Royal Dutch Geographical Society was formed in 1873 in the Netherlands to fund important expeditions to the Dutch East Indies. At a private institution in Amsterdam, the society’s first endowed chair was in “colonial geography.” In Russia, the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg sponsored the field in several ways, including establishing it at Moscow State University early on. Following the establishment of the first university professorships in 1859, the Italian Geographical Society was formed in 1867, and it, too, supported “exploratory” geography and geography education in schools.
After such courses were terminated at the University of London in the late 1880s, the Royal Geographical Organization persuaded Cambridge and Oxford to give geography teaching, which the society funded for several decades (though degree courses were not established until the 1920s and 1930s). As other British universities were established, they were also under pressure to provide geography teaching.
Private donations were used to ensure the employment of some academics. Others saw the necessity for geography education in related subjects such as economics, geology, and history, even though few of those selected to teach it had any official training in the subject. This was also true of the first professors of geography, Frank Debenham and Kenneth Mason, who were appointed in the early 1930s at Cambridge and Oxford, respectively.
Many early geography instructors worked in departments that introduced geography instruction. Still, as demand for courses increased—particularly among students planning to teach the subject in schools—separate geography departments and degree programs arose. By 1945, virtually every British institution and many universities and university colleges throughout the British Empire had a geography department.
Geography’s Early Research Agenda In Europe
A few significant persons shaped the study paths of geography in the nineteenth century, but not all of them were formally connected with the subject. Many of its origins may be traced back to continental European geographers influenced by philosophers like Immanuel Kant. He wrote on geography in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). The German academics Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Carl Ritter (1779–1859), and Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), as well as the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845–1918), were critical.
The Germans Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Forster, who had collected botanical and climatological data on James Cook’s second expedition, sparked Humboldt’s interest. To illustrate environmental variation, Humboldt synthesized a vast amount of data (much of it gathered during his travels, which included five years in Central and South America), noting differences in agricultural practices and patterns of human settlement that reflected the interactions of elevation, temperature, and vegetation.
His work focused on gathering data in the field and analyzing it using maps, which led to inductive generalizations about environmental features and their links to human activities. His most significant published work, the five-volume Kosmos, was based on materials gathered from various sources.
Unlike Humboldt, who pioneered systematic geography, Ritter concentrated on regional geography or the study of the links between occurrences in different regions. This necessitated the creation of regions or other places with diverse assemblages of events. In preparing his 19-volume Die Erdkunde im Verhältniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte eines Menschen (“Earth Science in Relation to Nature and the History of Man”), which he never finished, he relied on secondary data sources.
When it came to relating human civilizations to their physical settings, Ratzel, who studied biology and anthropology in his early years, was heavily affected by Darwinian thought. His two-volume Anthropogeographie (1882–91) illustrated the idea of survival of the fittest by relating the path of history to Earth’s physical characteristics. In his later Politische geographie (1897), he used Darwinian reasoning to portray nation-states as creatures battling for territory (Lebensraum, or “living space”), with only the strongest able to expand territorially.
There were no professionally educated geographers when geography was established in German universities in the late 19th century, and the earliest professors had backgrounds in history, mathematics, geology, biology, or journalism. Their new field, which was envisioned as a broad Earth science, included methodical materials from the fields in which they had been educated.
They built on Humboldt and Ritter’s foundations to bring geography together around the regional notion. Field research outside of Germany was considered an important component of the curriculum, and each student spent a year studying abroad. The Deutscher Geographentag—regular meetings of several hundred German geographers—began in the late 1800s and lasted until today. In the early twentieth century, a distinct Association of Academic Geographers was founded, by which time numerous significant geographical publications had been published.
The field had its origins in history and cartography in France. Paul Vidal de la Blache, a geographer, appointed to the Sorbonne in 1898 and had close ties with the Annales school of historians, was the first significant practitioner. Vidal was interested in identifying and characterizing regions or pays—relatively tiny homogenous areas—and the different genres de vie (“modes of life”) that arose from people’s interactions with their physical surroundings. Unlike some of his German colleagues, such as Ratzel, he did not believe that the physical environment was the primary determinant of those relationships.
Instead, he advocated for possibilism, in which the environment provides a variety of possibilities and individuals choose how to transform nature based on their cultural and technical backgrounds. “Nowhere necessities…everywhere possibilities,” as modern historian Lucien Febvre phrased it.
Tableau de la géographie de la France (1903; “Outline of the Geography of France”), an introduction to the multivolume Histoire de la France, and the 15-volume Géographie universelle (1927–48) were two of Vidal’s main achievements. During the early part of the twentieth century, many of his students published dissertations on specific countries, which dominated French geography.
The late-nineteenth-century developments in continental Europe laid the groundwork for an academic field to emerge in the English-speaking world. New philosophical concerns were merged with long-standing exploration and cartographic traditions. The first International Geographical Congress was held in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1871; many additional congresses were conducted on the Continent before the first gatherings in London (1895) and New York (1904), perpetuating the perception that geography was still a “European” subject, at least among some. In 1922, the International Geographical Union (IGU) was established.
Geographical knowledge of the world’s ecosystems and peoples arose as a separate academic field due to this need. It was established as a topic in the academic community. It created related organizations, such as learned societies, to promote the field and journals in which geographers could publish their work from tiny and varied beginnings. Its importance came to be acknowledged globally.
In 1964, 70 nations sent representatives to the International Geographical Congress in London; now, the IGU is associated with more than 100 countries through national organizations for the discipline. As they began to pursue research and novel studies, geographers became academics in the full meaning of the 20th-century university.
Geography In The United States
There was no concerted push for geography instruction in the United States, where each state was responsible for providing primary, secondary, and university education. Instead, geography programs were developed in response to specific local circumstances. Geography courses were taught in geology departments at some universities; at others, they were taught in business and commerce schools, as was the case at the University of California, Berkeley, where the country’s first separate geography department was established in 1898 within the College of Commerce.
Several geography departments, including graduate programs, sprang from these programs—and the courses included in teacher education at regular schools (many of which became state colleges and universities) and university education departments.
By 1945, there were around 30 geography graduate programs in the United States. However, the discipline remained underdeveloped, and numerous departments and undergraduate degree programs were terminated in succeeding decades. Several Ivy League schools (except Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire) and other private institutions, including Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois; 1987) and, most notably, the University of Chicago (1986), were closed, though Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) established a Center for Geographic Analysis in 2006.
In the United Kingdom and North America, where institutionalization into academic organizations came later, European academics significantly affected the nascent field. Different elements of the subject were developed by scholars, some of whom studied in Germany or France. In the United States, William Morris Davis, a geologist at Harvard University who published extensively on landscape change, was at the forefront (later called geomorphology, or the study of landforms).
He made a strong case for geography education, proposing an approach based on German environmental determinism: human behavior is highly influenced by environmental variables. Thus physical geography should be the foundation for comprehending human activity. Davis was the lead author of an 1892 report on geography education that advocated for a more scientific approach based on physical geography but also including “the physical influences by which man and the creatures of the Earth are so profoundly affected,” rather than the rote learning that characterized the discipline in American schools at the time.
Most American geographers quickly dismissed this method as faulty, opting instead for a regional approach in which areal differences in human activities, mainly land uses, in their natural contexts were documented, and homogenous areas were created. Richard Hartshorne formalized this method. His monograph, The Nature of Geography (1939; reissued 1976), was heavily inspired by German writers, particularly Alfred Hettner, and envisioned the discipline’s defining features. He concluded that geography is “systematic geography focused on particular occurrences.”
Regional geography, on the other hand, was “the ultimate purpose of geography”—a task later redefined as “the highest form of the geographer’s art,” according to Sidney William Wooldridge, a leading British geographer, in The Geographer as Scientist: Essays on the Scope and Nature of Geography (1956, reprinted 1969).
Many of Hartshorne’s contemporaries, such as Preston E. James, defined themselves as regional geographers and wrote important works, such as his acclaimed Latin America (1942). Like James’ An Outline of Geography (1935), many preparatory works employed global, regional divisions as organizational templates, but the areas were generally specified at considerably greater sizes than the Vidalian pays.
Although regional geography dominated geographic practices in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, it was not uniformly embraced. The method connected with Carl Sauer (1889–1975), a University of Chicago geography graduate, and the associates and students he directed at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1923 to 1957, was popularly recognized as cultural geography.
Sauer was inspired by the Germans as well, but he focused on the study of landscape changes caused by the impact of various cultural groups on surroundings, with a focus on rural Latin America. The Berkeley school used field, documentary, and other evidence to investigate societal evolution in its environmental context, much of which appeared to involve diffusion from the core “culture areas.” For several decades, these two approaches dominated U.S. geography, with the considerable conflict between what was seen as the “Midwest” and “West Coast” definitions—which, respectively, emphasized the Midwest and the West Coast.
However, not all American geographers followed one of these paths. Some, including early economists like J. Russell Smith, worked in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Geography and Industry and wrote Industrial and Commercial Geography in 1913. Economic or commercial geography courses were widespread in economics departments at American colleges at the time. Still, the linkages had almost vanished by 1920 as academic economics shifted to a more analytical and statistical (or mathematical) approach.
Isaiah Bowman, president of Johns Hopkins University from 1935 to 1948, was another significant figure in the early twentieth century. Bowman performed his early study on physical geography and pioneer colonization in South America as a geology graduate of Harvard, where William Morris Davis instructed him. He handled cartographic and other geographical work as director of the American Geographical Society (1915–35) in the run-up to the Paris Peace Conference (1919–20), which he attended after World War I.
The origins of academic geography in the United Kingdom Two of the first and most prominent geographers in the United Kingdom were connected with the University of Oxford’s School of Geography. Halford John (later Sir Halford) Mackinder was appointed in 1887 and was educated in natural sciences and history. In 1899, he felt compelled to establish his geographical qualifications by climbing Mount Kenya. He is most recognized for his contributions to political geography; for more than half a century, his idea of the “heartland”—the center of the Eurasian landmass—as the crucial location in international geopolitics inspired much Western political strategy.
Later in life, he worked as a politician and diplomat. Mackinder was a strong advocate for geography instruction in schools. In an 1887 paper to the Royal Geographical Society, he defined geography as the scientific study of society’s interactions with the environment. He also chaired the conference that formed the Geographical Association in 1893, which sought to be a community for geography instructors at all levels and grew into a powerful advocate for the field.
After Mackinder, Andrew John Herbertson took over the department at the University of Oxford. He relied on European origins and stressed regional research, defining regions at the world scale using climatic and other criteria; others expanded on the regional idea, utilizing a broader range of phenomena at smaller sizes (echoing the French work on pays). Regional geography remained at the heart of the subject in the United Kingdom until the 1950s, as Sidney William Wooldridge and Gordon East argued in The Spirit and Purpose of Geography (1953).
Others who had an early influence were L. Dudley (later Sir Dudley). The Stamp was a geologist by training who spent most of his career in the London School of Economics’ geography department. In the 1930s, he oversaw a land-use survey in Britain, enlisting the help of 250,000 students to record the country’s land usage. When Stamp was involved in significant government inquiries into land use during World War II, this material proved invaluable in agricultural planning. It served as a foundation for his promotion of applied geography and geographers’ contributions to the postwar extension of urban, rural planning activities.
He authored several textbooks, sparked interest in new fields (such as medical geography), and encouraged collaboration through the IGU, which he led from 1960 to 1966. Wooldridge was also a geologist who worked in the geography department at King’s College, London. He was a key influence in developing physical geography in the United Kingdom, particularly geomorphology, thanks to his interpretations of Davis’s theories.
Wooldridge was also a geologist who worked in the geography department at King’s College, London. He was a key influence in developing physical geography in the United Kingdom, particularly geomorphology, thanks to his interpretations of Davis’s theories. Geography after 1945
After 1945, the core of European and American geographical study focused on finding and documenting areal differences of the Earth’s surroundings and their exploitation by human cultures and, to a lesser extent, accounting for the formation of different locations (regions). This information was helpful in general education and was used for military objectives throughout both World Wars. The ability of geographers to analyze cartographic and aerial photography data was also heavily used.
However, the emphasis on integration and regional synthesis began to wane, and geographers began to identify themselves more by their systematic specific interests than by a geographic concentration. Individual experts built linkages with related disciplines (e.g., geomorphologists with geologists), generating research foci at interdisciplinary boundary regions taught in specialized courses, and thus produced outward-looking forces inside the field throughout the rest of the century.
Physical geographers, who increasingly identified themselves as environmental scientists, and human geographers, whose allegiance was to the social sciences, gradually replaced the regional at the discipline’s core, a shift associated with a major division within the discipline, between physical geographers, who increasingly identified themselves as environmental scientists, and human geographers, whose allegiance was to the social sciences.
The ties between continental European geographers and English-speaking nations were fraying by the end of the 1930s. This mirrored the political circumstances in part, but it also came from the discipline’s expansion and the development of specific approaches to the topic in the United Kingdom and the United States and postwar transatlantic relations. After 1945, European ties were not rekindled significantly, and there was minimal communication between English-speaking and other geographers for several decades.
The four Scandinavian nations and the Netherlands were the primary exceptions. Human geography has long had a tight relationship with professional planning; most of the geographic research done in those countries has been published in English. Meanwhile, geographers in the United Kingdom and North America became closer. Many British students went to universities in North America, particularly Canada, where there were just a few geography departments before the Canadian Association of Geographers was formed in 1950.
After the war, academic geography in Germany, which many consider the subject’s heartland, had to recover from its link with Nazi ideology, particularly the employment of the school of geopolitics (Geopolitik) to back Nazi territorial expansion goals (for Lebensraum ).
Initially, the few remaining geographers returned to their pre-1930s roots in the study of landscapes—particularly geomorphology and settlement patterns—but, as universities have increased since the 1960s, greater pluralism has emerged, and Anglo-American disciplinary changes have slowly infiltrated. After numerous student revolts in France in 1968, the discipline suffered a severe setback.
Some French geographers were drawn to what became known as the “new” geography, which was gaining popularity elsewhere. In contrast, others resisted, advocating instead for a specific concept of spatial organization that integrated the traditional humanistic themes of French geography. Further east, in the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations, the direction of geography study, like that of other fields, was dictated by state goals. Physical geography became dominating, and connections to the West were limited for decades.