August 16th in German History: The Death of Robert Bunsen

Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (HeidICON 53016) (cropped).jpg
Robert Bunsen

Many scientists are well-known. Names like Einstein and Newton are popular even in non-scientific contexts. However, few names are known almost entirely for a single invention. Robert Bunsen himself is, unfortunately, almost completely forgotten while his invention lives on. However, Bunsen did more than simply invent the burner that is a mainstay of high school science labs. He made important contributions to chemistry. He died on August 16th, 1899.

Robert Bunsen was born in 1811 and was the son of a professor and chief librarian at the University of Gottingen. He studied chemistry at Gottingen and in 1831 obtained a PhD. During the 1830s he made his first discoveries. He discovered that iron hydroxate could be used as an antidote for arsenic poisoning and studied the chemical cacodyl. He created the Bunsen cell battery in 1841 and lost sight in his right eye after a cacodyl explosion. In 1846 he was part of an expedition to the volcanoes of Iceland. In the 1850s he began using electrolysis to produce pure metals and in 1852 he conducted the work that would lead to his reciprocity law, which details the relationship between the intensity and duration of light. In 1855 Bunsen and his lab assistant Peter Desaga perfected the Bunsen Burner, which produced a hotter and cleaner flame than those produced by earlier burners. In 1859 he began his systematic study of emission spectra of heated elements using the recently invented spectroscope. As a result of this study he discovered Cesium in 1860 and Rubidium in 1861. Bunsen was very prominent during his lifetime, and in 1877 he and Gustav Kirchhoff were the first recipients of the Davy Medal. Bunsen retired at the age of 78 and died ten years later.

By all accounts, Robert Bunsen was a humble and well-mannered person in addition to being an excellent scientist. However, his refusal to seek any patents and desire to spend most of his time doing research instead of increasing his popularity have almost certainly contributed to his contributions being mostly forgotten. It is unfortunate that the most hard-working people are often remembered far less than those who contributed comparatively little but who made their contributions in more popular fields.

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