Birthday: March 30, 1811
Died At Age: 88
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: R. Bunsen
Born in: Göttingen
Famous as: Chemist
Died on: August 16, 1899
place of death: Heidelberg
discoveries/inventions: Bunsen Burner
education: University of Göttingen
Who was Robert Bunsen?
Robert Bunsen was a German chemist who developed the Bunsen burner with his laboratory assistant Peter Desaga. A pioneer in photochemistry, he developed several gas-analytical methods and also performed research in the field of organoarsenic chemistry. The son of a professor, he grew up in an intellectually stimulating environment and developed an interest in science quite early on. He grew up to study chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and mathematics at the University of Göttingen and earned his doctorate in chemistry. He embarked on an academic career and taught at the Universities of Marburg and Breslau among others. While he was not teaching, he busied himself with performing experiments in the laboratory. Passionately committed to chemistry, he worked with substances such as cacodyl derivatives, sodium, barium, calcium, hydrogen and chlorine to make new discoveries and inventions. Some of his experiments posed potential dangers to his health and life, and he once almost died from arsenic poisoning. In addition to being an exceptional chemist, he was also skilled in designing apparatus and laboratory equipment. Among his numerous inventions are a carbon-zinc electric cell, the grease-spot photometer, the ice calorimeter, and the Bunsen burner. He never married and dedicated his entire life to scientific pursuits.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen was born on 30 March 1811, in Göttingen, Westphalia, Rhine Confederation (now Germany) to Christian Bunsen and his wife, as the youngest of four sons. His father was the University of Göttingen's chief librarian and professor of modern philology while his mother was the daughter of a British-Hanoverian officer.
He graduated from the Gymnasium at Holzminden in 1828 following which he joined the University of Göttingen where he studied chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and mathematics. He was educated under the guidance of teachers such as Friedrich Stromeyer, Johann Friedrich Ludwig Hausmann, and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
He completed his doctorate in 1831 and spent the next couple of years travelling in Germany, France, and Austria. His journeys were enriching ones and he met several prominent scientists including Freidlieb Runge, Justus Liebig, Eilhard Mitcherlich, Henri-Victor Regnault, Théophile Pelouze, and César Despretz.
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He began his academic career in 1833, becoming a lecturer at Göttingen. From the very beginning, he started experimenting in the laboratory. His initial experiments were on the (in) solubility of metal salts of arsenous acid. The experiments were of a very dangerous nature and he almost lost his life to arsenic poisoning.
In 1836, Bunsen succeeded Friedrich Wöhler at the Polytechnic School of Kassel. He worked there for three years before taking up the position of an associate professor at the University of Marburg. He was made a full professor in 1841.
By this time he was beginning to get much recognition for his chemical experiments with dangerous substances. One of his major inventions, the Bunsen cell battery, using a carbon electrode instead of the expensive platinum electrode, was also made in 1841.
He was known to risk his own safety and health in the pursuit of scientific discoveries. In 1843, he lost the use of his right eye in an explosion of cacodyl cyanide, an extremely toxic substance that undergoes spontaneous combustion in dry air.
He became a professor at the University of Breslau in 1851. There he met Gustav Kirchhoff, with who he would later collaborate to perform important research in spectroscopy.
After teaching at Breslau for just three semesters, he moved to the University of Heidelberg, succeeding Leopold Gmelin in 1852. He would remain at Heidelberg until his retirement in 1889.
Over the ensuing years, his experiments became more intense. In some of his experiments he used electrolysis to produce pure metals, such as chromium, magnesium, aluminum, manganese, sodium, barium, calcium and lithium.
He collaborated with Henry Enfield Roscoe in 1852 and the two men studied the photochemical formation of hydrogen chloride from hydrogen and chlorine which led to the development of the reciprocity law of Bunsen and Roscoe.
In the mid-1850s, he worked with his laboratory assistant, Peter Desaga, to develop a special gas burner which provided a very hot and clean flame. The burner is now known as the "Bunsen burner.”
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In 1859, he partnered with Gustav Kirchhoff to study emission spectra of heated elements, a research area called spectrum analysis. They invented a prototype spectroscope for identifying the characteristic spectra of sodium, lithium, and potassium, and proved that highly pure samples gave unique spectra.
In 1868, he devised methods for separating the several metals—palladium, ruthenium, iridium, and rhodium—that remain in ores after the extraction of platinum. During this period he also worked with Victor Meyer to conduct a government–sponsored study of the mineral water of Baden, the results of which were published in 1871.
Working along with his laboratory assistant Peter Desaga, Robert Bunsen designed a burner that produces a single open gas flame, which is used for heating, sterilization, and combustion. The burners, known as Bunsen burners, are used in laboratories all around the world.
He invented the Bunsen cell by improving upon the Grove cell designed by William Robert Grove. Bunsen replaced the Grove cell’s expensive platinum cathode with carbon in the form of pulverized coal and coke.
Awards & Achievements
He was made a corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences in 1853, and a foreign member in 1882.
In 1860, Bunsen was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The same year, he received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London.
In 1877, Bunsen and Kirchhoff became the first recipients of the prestigious Davy Medal "for their researches & discoveries in spectrum analysis."
He was awarded the Albert Medal in 1898 “in recognition of his numerous and most valuable applications of Chemistry and Physics to the Arts and Manufactures.”
Personal Life & Legacy
Robert Bunsen never married. He was totally dedicated to his profession and was a very popular and much-loved scientist. As a teacher he doted on his students who also returned his affection.
He remained active until the very end of his life. Following his retirement at the age of 78, he focused his interest on geology and mineralogy. He died on 16 August 1899 at the age of 88.