Robert Bunsen (1811 – 1899)
I regard it as a badge of honour – I managed to get a creditable grade in my Chemistry O level without ever once lighting a bunsen burner. The latest inductee into our Hall of Fame, the German chemist, Robert Bunsen, developed the burner to which he gave his name and which has enabled schoolchildren down the ages to experiment with chemical reactions, both officially and, more enjoyably, unofficially.
Without doubt our Robert was a clever bastard. Born in Gottingen in 1811 which at the time was in the short-lived independent kingdom of Westphalia but was soon absorbed into the kingdom of Hannover, Bunsen studied chemistry, mineralogy and mathematics at the local university. After graduating he taught at the local university and started to conduct experiments into the solubility or otherwise of arsenous acids. His discovery that using iron hydrate oxide as a precipitating agent to produce an antidote to arsenic poisoning – a major problem in those days as arsenic was used to produce the green colouration in wallpapers and was responsible for many household deaths – is still used today and is considered to be the most effective antidote.
In 1841 Bunsen created the Bunsen cell battery – it is amazing how throughout his career he discovered things which bore his name – which used the cheaper carbon electrode instead of the platinum electrode, a development which reduced the cost of producing a battery.
Moving to Heidelberg in 1852 our hero pioneered the development and use of electrolysis to isolate metals such as chromium, magnesium, aluminium, manganese, sodium, barium, calcium and lithium. In 1859 he started to study the emission spectra of heated particles, a branch of scientific enquiry called spectrum analysis. For this work he needed to generate a powerful and intense flame to heat up the particles. After much experimentation, he and his assistant Peter Desaga came up with a burner which threw out a clean and very hot flame – what we now know as the Bunsen burner.
This wasn’t the end of his ingenuity. Later on in 1859, perhaps his annus mirabilis, he developed what we now know as a prototype spectroscope which enabled him to identify the characteristic spectra of sodium, lithium and potassium. It was through this research that he was able to discover and isolate previously undetected elements, principally caesium and rubidium.
But, I hear you cry, the common characteristic of our inductees is some element of misfortune and all you have told us about Bunsen suggests that he led a life free from misfortune. Not a bit of it! Arsenic, particularly because of the presence of cacodyl which is extremely toxic and undergoes spontaneous combustion when in contact with dry air, was notoriously difficult to work with. Constant exposure to arsenic meant that Bunsen almost died from the build-up of arsenic poison in his system. Worse was to follow in 1843. Whilst experimenting some cacodyl cyanide blew up in his face causing him to lose his right eye.
Robert, for the sacrifices you made to further our understanding of and protection from arsenic and for inventing, amongst other things, the bunsen burner, you are a worthy inductee.
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