Biography of Albrecht Penck! Geographer

Biography of Albrecht Penck!

Albrecht Penck was a leading German geographer of the early part of the 20th century, who formulated the concept of ‘geomorphology’, was trained in geology.


Penck was a professor at Vienna from 1885 to 1906. He was associated with Eduard Suess, who prepared maps of the major geological regions of the world. He founded the principles of landforms evolution and showed how the systematic study of features can be approached from the chorological (regional) point of view.

In 1910, Penck postulated the hypothesis that classification of climates can be made with the help of study of landforms even where the meteorological data are not available. He was the first to point out that evaporation increases with higher temperature. He also pointed out that the effective rainfall, i.e., the difference between rainfall of a place, and run-off plus evaporation is directly dependent on the prevailing temperature. Moreover, he considered man also as an important agent who carves out the face of the earth. Penck stressed the importance of accurate maps, showing relief features for a systematic study of geography. The idea of topographical maps was thus put forward by him.

It was because of his suggestions that topographical maps on the large scale, i.e., one inch to one mile, showing the major relief features, water bodies, vegetations and the work of man, started being prepared. Penck introduced the term ‘Gestalt’, borrowed from Psychology in Geography. He used this to express the unified from of larger areas (whole). In his opinion, “geography is a bridge between the natural and social sciences”.

Penck’s pioneering ideas inspired many young scientists to pursue research in the field of geomorphology and climatology. Wladimir Koppen—the Russian-born German climatologist—started studying world climate on the lines advocated by Penck.


For his climatic study, he took into consideration the observable relief features, besides the recorded temperature and rainfall data. Between 1884 and 1918, Koppen made several attempts to produce a satisfactory classification of climates. For his classification, he took into consideration temperatures, vegetation, rainfall effectiveness to temperature and seasonal and annual variations of temperature and rainfall.

With the help of these indicators, Koppen arrived at certain regularities in the temperature and rainfall distribution. He established that moisture deficiencies exist throughout the year, on the western margins between 20° and 30° in both the hemispheres and similarly the continental areas on the same latitude are more colder in winter and more warm in summer than the parts lying in the vicinity of water bodies (oceans, seas).

In the field of oceanography also, Germans made a substantial contribution. Gerhard Schott studied the motion, temperature, salinity, colour, ocean deposits, configuration, ocean climates, geological structures of ocean basins, ocean organisms, the routes of ocean trade and air routes over oceans. Schott prepared a world map in which ocean regions were delineated on the basis of various indicators.

During the first fifteen years of the 20th century, Germans made great strides in the field of geography. This was a period of rapid growth and increasing productivity of geographical concepts and literature. The period after the First World War was a lean period in which most of the geographers who did not agree with government policies remained silent. Many of the Jews were placed in confinement. In spite of the political problems and difficulties created by government for academics, there were notable contributions in the field of urban and agricultural geography. Walter Chris-taller put forward the Central Place Theory with the set objective of functional organization of space.

Similarly, von Thunen advocated the Crop Intensity Theory. Thus, there was stress on landscape planning during the two wars. Again, during the period, attention of the German geographers was focused on geo-politics. Houshofer, in 1924, being inspired by the ideas of Kjellen and Ratzel, was convinced that state is a living organism which needs space to grow. Houshofer, through his writings, probably influenced Nazi policies. With the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War in 1945, Houshofer was put on trail at Nuremburg. In 1946, he committed suicide.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided. There was political turmoil and socio-economic crisis. Universities and libraries were ruined. However, within a short period of about fifteen years (1945-1960), Germans again emerged as a force in the field of geography. In 1947, a new geographical periodical entitled Erdkunde appeared.

The Germans started studying landscape with the help of new and sophisticated statistical tools and techniques. Now, there is more stress on variation from place to place as the function of latitude, altitude, distance from the sea and direction from the nearest coast. In the post-war period, the new trend is that of ‘cultural determinism’ in place of environmental and physical determinisms.

The new emphasis on culture is called ‘social geography’. The Germans are now trying to interpret landscape with the help of attitudes of people and their technical skill since these are felt to be the vital parts of man’s culture. Moreover, an integrated approach to studying landscape is now in evidence. In this effort scholars of physical and social sciences are being involved.

German geographers and cartographers made notable contributions in the art of map-making during the 19th and 20th centuries. For many years, the von Sydow maps and atlases, with some wall maps, were widely used. The Perthes Firm published Stieler’s Atlas, under the supervision of A.H. Pattermann. In 1845-47, Pattermann, while working with W&AK Johnston in Edinburgh, prepared the Physical Atlas.

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