Robert Bunsen is best known for one of his more minor contributions to the field of science, the Bunsen burner, even though his lifetime of work yielded many more important, albeit less publicized, contributions. Born Robert Wilhelm Bunsen on 31 March 1811 in Göttingen, Germany, he was a modest, unassuming man of incredible intelligence. His contributions span several scientific disciplines, including chemistry, organic chemistry, geology, photochemical studies and spectrography.
Bunsen began his studies in chemistry, and received his doctorate at 19 years of age in Germany. After graduation, he took a job lecturing and traveled throughout Europe to study advancements in manufacturing, geology and chemistry. One of his first breakthroughs was in organic/physiological chemistry when he discovered the use of iron oxide hydrate as an antidote for arsenic poisoning. In 1838, he began teaching at the University of Marlsburg, where he studied cacodyl, a compound made with arsenic. These experiments proved to be very dangerous and life threatening, and the substance nearly poisoned Bunsen, and an explosion in his lab took his sight in one eye.
Later, Robert Bunsen turned his interests to blast furnaces in Germany and Britain. He noticed that the furnaces were losing significant heat in the process — anywhere from 50 to 80%. He collaborated with fellow scientist, Lyon Playfair, and together they devised a technique to recycle the heat, making them more efficient. He also invented a carbon electrode to improve the batteries in use at the time.
Although Bunsen was very successful in his work with organic chemistry, he discovered that he favored the field of geology. He spent time analyzing volcanic rock and gases in Iceland, and tested currently held theories on geysers.
Where the scientist would make the biggest impact in the scientific world was in his photochemical studies. During his study in spectroscopy, the study of the rays in light, he invented the Bunsen-Kirchoff spectroscope. He eventually discovered two new elements, cesium and rubidium. Thanks to his spectroscope, other scientists subsequently discovered other new elements.
As for his most famous namesake, the Bunsen burner, in reality, it was merely his concept, and he did not in actuality design it. Peter Desaga used Bunsen’s concept — pre-mixing gas and air before combusting it to give the burner a hotter burning, and nonluminous flame — and created the device that carries his name.
Robert Bunsen was inducted into the Chemical Society of London in 1842 and the Academies des Sciences in 1853. During his lifetime, he would receive many other honors and distinctions. Upon retiring at the age of 78, Bunsen went back to the study of geology, a field that gave him much enjoyment. He passed away 16 August 1899, unmarried, but loved and admired by a great many colleagues.