Ritter was born on August 7, 1779 in Quedlinburg, Germany (then Prussia), ten years after von Humboldt. At the age of five, Ritter was fortunate to have been chosen as a guinea pig to attend a new experimental school which brought him into contact with some of the greatest thinkers of the period. In his early years, he was tutored by the geographer J.C.F. GutsMuths and learned the relationship between people and their environment.
At the age of sixteen, Ritter was able to attend a university by receiving tuition in exchange for tutoring a wealthy banker's sons. Ritter became a geographer by learning to observe the world around him; he also became an expert at sketching landscapes. He learned Greek and Latin so that he could read more about the world. His travels and direct observations were limited to Europe, he was not the world traveler that von Humboldt was.
In 1804, at the age of 25, Ritter's first geographical writings, about the geography of Europe, were published. In 1811 he published a two volume textbook about the geography of Europe. From 1813 to 1816 Ritter studied "geography, history, pedagogy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy, and botany" at the University of Gottingen.
In 1817, he published the first volume of his major work, Die Erdkunde, or Earth Science (the literal German translation for the word "geography.") Intended to be a complete geography of the world, Ritter published 19 volumes, consisting of over 20,000 pages, over the course of his life. Ritter often included theology in his writings for he described that the earth displayed evidence of God's plan.
Unfortunately, he was only able to write about Asia and Africa before he died in 1859 (the same year as von Humboldt). The full, and lengthy, title of Die Erdkunde is translated to The Science of the Earth in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind; or, General Comparative Geography as the Solid Foundation of the Study of, and Instruction in, the Physical and Historical Sciences.
In 1819 Ritter became a professor of history at the University of Frankfurt. The following year, he was appointed to be the first chair of geography in Germany - at the University of Berlin. Though his writings were often obscure and difficult to understand, his lectures were very interesting and quite popular. The halls where he gave lectures were almost always full. While he held many other simultaneous positions throughout his life, such as founding of the Berlin Geographical Society, he continued to work and lecture at the University of Berlin until his death on September 28, 1859 in that city.
One of Ritter's most famous students and ardent supporters was Arnold Guyot, who was professor of physical geography and geology at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) from 1854 to 1880.