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Who is Robert Bunsen?

Robert Bunsen was a trailblazing German chemist who left an indelible mark on science with his invention of the Bunsen burner, a staple in laboratories worldwide. His work in spectroscopy also paved the way for analyzing chemical elements. Discover how Bunsen's legacy continues to ignite scientific curiosity—what spark might his story ignite in you? Continue reading to explore his fiery impact.
O. Wallace
O. Wallace

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.

Robert Bunsen's concept of pre-mixing gas and air before combusting it led to the development of the Bunsen burner.
Robert Bunsen's concept of pre-mixing gas and air before combusting it led to the development of the Bunsen burner.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Robert Bunsen and why is he significant in the field of chemistry?

Robert Bunsen was a German chemist born on March 31, 1811, who made significant contributions to analytical chemistry. He is best known for his invention of the Bunsen burner, a common piece of laboratory equipment that provides a single open gas flame, which is used for heating, sterilization, and combustion. Bunsen also worked on emission spectroscopy of heated elements, leading to the discovery of cesium and rubidium with his colleague Gustav Kirchhoff. His work laid the foundation for modern spectroscopic analysis.

What are some of Robert Bunsen's most notable scientific achievements?

Aside from inventing the Bunsen burner, Robert Bunsen's notable scientific achievements include pioneering spectroscopy with Gustav Kirchhoff, which revolutionized the way chemists analyze substances. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, their work led to the discovery of the elements cesium in 1860 and rubidium in 1861 by observing their spectral lines. Bunsen also developed methods for gas analysis and made improvements in photographic processes, contributing broadly to chemical and analytical methods.

How did the Bunsen burner impact scientific research and education?

The Bunsen burner, introduced around 1855, had a profound impact on scientific research and education by providing a safer and more controllable heat source than open flames or alcohol lamps. Its design allows for the precise adjustment of the flame's heat and size, which is crucial for conducting experiments with consistent results. The Bunsen burner is still widely used in laboratories around the world, making it an enduring legacy in science education and research.

What was Robert Bunsen's approach to scientific research?

Robert Bunsen was known for his meticulous and methodical approach to scientific research. He emphasized the importance of quantitative analysis and precise measurement, which is evident in his work on gasometric methods and spectroscopy. Bunsen's dedication to empirical evidence and systematic experimentation set a standard for modern scientific methodology, and his collaborative work with Kirchhoff exemplified the value of interdisciplinary research in advancing scientific knowledge.

Did Robert Bunsen receive any notable awards or recognition for his work?

Yes, Robert Bunsen received numerous accolades for his contributions to science. He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1858, which is a significant honor bestowed upon non-British scientists who have made considerable contributions to science. Additionally, the lunar crater Bunsen is named in his honor, and the Bunsen–Kirchhoff Award was established to recognize outstanding achievements in the field of spectroscopy, reflecting the enduring impact of his work.

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Discussion Comments


it is nice to remember the people who worked for society.


I remember similar experiences in Chemistry classes - being left unattended and lighting the gas straight out of the nozzles. Ahh, childhood memories.


I can't help but think of a certain memory whenever I hear about Bunsen and his burners.

It was a normal day in eighth grade science class. We were doing some basic experiment involving the tools. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you probably shouldn't leave a bunch of thirteen year olds unsupervised with gas burners. But my teacher at the time didn't subscribe to conventional wisdom. For whatever reason, she was out of the classroom for several minutes at one point. A girl in my class unscrewed the top of her burner too much (if I recall, you have to twist the top part to increase the gas flow, but this is also how the burners deconstruct). Upon accidentally removing the top part while the flame was still going, something caused a spark to ignite the flowing fumes, causing a massive blue fireball to shoot up all the way to the ceiling! Luckily, no one was hurt and nothing was damaged. It is however, a memory I love to relive.


Can you tell me about the bunsen burner?

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    • Robert Bunsen's concept of pre-mixing gas and air before combusting it led to the development of the Bunsen burner.
      Robert Bunsen's concept of pre-mixing gas and air before combusting it led to the development of the Bunsen burner.