SCIENCE: Robert Wilhelm Bunsen

John Gehl sends us this bio of the German chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811-1899), whose name should be instantly recognizable by anyone who ever took a laboratory course in chemistry and heated a beaker of chemicals with the ubiquitous "Bunsen burner" -- a gas burner consisting of  a vertical metal tube with holes near the bottom to admit air, a movable collar to regulate the air flow, a stopcock to control the gas, and a short pipe at the bottom, connected to a rubber hose, to carry the gas from its source to the burner. While Bunsen invented or improved numerous pieces of laboratory equipment, the Bunsen burner was not his invention, but rather a laboratory tool he popularized to such an extent that it became linked to his name. Two inventions that were properly his and rightly bear his name are the Bunsen cell that converts chemical energy into electrical energy and the Bunsen photometer that measures the intensity of a light source.

After taking his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Göttingen, Bunsen taught at the universities of Marburg and Breslau and elsewhere. As a professor at Heidelberg (1852-99), he built up an excellent school of chemistry. Never married, he lived for his students, with whom he was very popular, and his laboratory. He chiefly concerned himself with experimental and analytical work. Early in Bunsen's career he found an antidote to arsenic poisoning, but at great personal cost --  losing the sight in one eye from an explosion and nearly killing himself from arsenic poisoning. His studies of  the gaseous products of blast furnaces showed considerable waste of heat and led him to develop efficient methods of measuring volumes of gases and cutting down heat losses. In this connection he went to Iceland where he studied their geysers and explained their workings. He was the first to obtain magnesium in the metallic state and study its physical and chemical properties, demonstrating the brilliance of the flame when magnesium is burned in air, an effect of later importance in photography. Perhaps his highest achievement is one he shares with his younger associate, Gustav Robert Kirchhoff. Working together they invented the technique of spectrum analysis and almost immediately discovered two new elements, caesium and rubidium.  

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 10, 2005