Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

More than a burner

Today (or possibly yesterday) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bunsen.

Firstly – and let’s get this out of the way right now – yes, he invented (or possibly didn’t – who cares?) the Bunsen burner. If I had a pound for every time I’d used one of these since school, I’d have…well, probably not enough to buy a pint of beer in most pubs I frequent. Flames and solvents don’t mix. I can’t think of many “iconic symbols” of science – in the eyes of laypeople – that are used less frequently by active scientists than this damn burner. Right, rant over.

So what else did my academic great-greatgreatgreatgreatgrandfather (I think – also another two ‘greats’ if you count along another line) do? A whole damn lot, that’s what.

Apart from almost poisoning himself while developing a cure for arsenic poisoning, he played a crucial role in the development of spectroscopy. He then used his spectroscope to discover caesium and rubidium from their emission spectra – and isolate them from mineral spring water. 40 tons of water gave up just 50 grams of caesium. In work that feels remarkably modern, he replaced expensive platinum electrodes with carbon to produce a battery that was widely used in arc lighting and electroplating.

His study of cacodyl, the evil-sounding tetramethyldiarsine, furthered the understanding of organic radicals. So that’s organic, inorganic, analytical, physical and electrochemistry ticked! Oh, and he dabbled in geology too, studying lava gases and developing a widely accepted theory on geysers.

By all accounts, Bunsen was also a great teacher and supervised numerous excellent students, many of whom went on to win Nobel prizes (von Baeyer, Haber and Lenard [physics]) or become famous names in their own right: Carius, Meyer, Beilstein, Tyndall, Frankland and Mendeleev.

His influence on 19th century chemistry – and thus modern chemistry and indeed industry – is pretty staggering. I think there are quite a few chemists of his era who are overlooked today, partly because they studied such a range of disciplines and partly because it’s very difficult to appreciate what they did when viewed through the cloudy lens of history. We can understand single achievements that are now viewed as easily labelled conceptual leaps in a historical narrative – Wohler’s urea synthesis, Mendeleev’s table or Perkin’s mauveine synthesis – but taking in a career like Bunsen’s requires more effort.

Neil

Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Simon Lancaster said:

    Dear Neil,

    I am an early transition metal chemist doing Schlenk line chemistry and we use Bunsen burners several times a day to flame dry glassware and once in a while to test qualitatively for lithium or boron. I won’t be alone!

    Best wishes,

    Simon

  2. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @Simon

    OK, so I was a bit rash with the ‘nobody uses’ rant – I look forward to being corrected by everyone else throughout the day/week/rest of my life.

    But my general point stands, that Bunsen did so much more than just invent a burner. He practically invented spectroscopy, for goodness sake!

  3. Report this comment

    Paul said:

    It’s a small world, Bunsen is my academic great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

  4. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @Paul

    So that makes us academic 4th cousins once removed!

    There must be hundreds or thousands of chemists out there who can trace their academic lineage back to him – another sign of his influence. But I see that he didn’t get a single vote in the #greatchemist poll. Kekule got 2 votes and he only had a dream!

    I’d love to see who from those days has the most ‘descendants’ currently active. I guess it could be done by trawling through the Illinois genealogy pages – can anyone suggest a way to do it more easily than just ‘by hand’ (I’m looking at the technical whizz kids from the Chemsitry Blog in particular here…)?

  5. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    For anyone interested in reading more about Bunsen, I found a few useful links from way back when, all by Henry Roscoe on his former mentor:

    Bunsen Memorial Lecture from J. Chem. Soc. 77, 513-554 (1900) (access to the RSC’s archive required)

    A fairly similar obituary in Nature 60 424-425 (1899)

    And a longer ‘appreciation’ from 1881, as part of a section on ‘Scientific Worthies’ (somehow, I can’t imagine a section like that in today’s Nature – or with that title!)