Science, Technology and Discoveries

Bunsen, Robert Wilhelm

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Bunsen, Robert Wilhelm (1811-1899), German chemist, who, with the German physicist Gustav Robert Kirchhoff, invented the spectroscope and discovered spectrum analysis, which led to their joint discovery of the elements cesium and rubidium.

Bunsen was born in Göttingen on March 31, 1811, and was educated at the University of Göttingen. Between 1836 and 1852 he taught successively at the Polytechnic Institute in Kassel and at the universities of Marburg and Breslau; thereafter he was professor at the University of Heidelberg until his retirement in 1889. Considered one of the greatest chemists in the world, Bunsen discovered (1834) the antidote that is still used today for arsenic poisoning: hydrated iron oxide. His research on the double cyanides confirmed the principle in organic chemistry that the nature of a compound depends on the radicals composing it. Contrary to popular belief, he had little to do with the invention of the Bunsen burner, a gas burner used in scientific laboratories. Although Bunsen improved and popularized the device, credit for its design should go to the British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. Among Bunsen's inventions are the ice calorimeter, a filter pump, and the zinc-carbon electric cell. He used the cell to produce an electric-arc light and invented a photometer to measure its luminosity. The cell was used also in his development of an electrolytic method of producing metallic magnesium. Results of his research on waste gases of blast furnaces were published in the classic Gasometric Methods (1857). Bunsen died in Heidelberg on August 16, 1899.