Robert Bunsen, born 1811, made many contributions to science, but is most widely recognized for a burner he created for use in flame tests.
Bunsen, the son of a professor of modern languages at Göttingen University in Germany, earned his doctorate from that university in 1830. He was then given a three-year travel grant that took him to factories, places of geologic interest, and famous laboratories, including Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac’s in Paris. Early in his career he did research in organic chemistry, which cost him the use of his right eye when an arsenic compound, cacodyl cyanide, exploded. Throughout his career he remained deeply interested in geological topics and once made daring temperature measurements of the water in the geyser tube of Iceland’s Great Geyser just before it erupted.
Bunsen’s most important work was in developing several techniques used in separating, identifying, and measuring various chemical substances. He also made a number of improvements in chemical batteries for use in isolating quantities of pure metals—including one known as the Bunsen battery. He created the Bunsen burner for use in flame tests of various metals and salts: its nonluminous flame did not interfere with the colored flame given off by the test material.
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about Robert Bunsen and his friend and collaborator Gustav Kirchhoff.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation