More than a burner

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Today (or possibly yesterday) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bunsen.

Firstly – and let’s get this out of the way right now – yes, he invented (or possibly didn’t – who cares?) the Bunsen burner. If I had a pound for every time I’d used one of these since school, I’d have…well, probably not enough to buy a pint of beer in most pubs I frequent. Flames and solvents don’t mix. I can’t think of many “iconic symbols” of science – in the eyes of laypeople – that are used less frequently by active scientists than this damn burner. Right, rant over.

So what else did my academic great-greatgreatgreatgreatgrandfather (I think – also another two ‘greats’ if you count along another line) do? A whole damn lot, that’s what.

Apart from almost poisoning himself while developing a cure for arsenic poisoning, he played a crucial role in the development of spectroscopy. He then used his spectroscope to discover caesium and rubidium from their emission spectra – and isolate them from mineral spring water. 40 tons of water gave up just 50 grams of caesium. In work that feels remarkably modern, he replaced expensive platinum electrodes with carbon to produce a battery that was widely used in arc lighting and electroplating.

His study of cacodyl, the evil-sounding tetramethyldiarsine, furthered the understanding of organic radicals. So that’s organic, inorganic, analytical, physical and electrochemistry ticked! Oh, and he dabbled in geology too, studying lava gases and developing a widely accepted theory on geysers.

By all accounts, Bunsen was also a great teacher and supervised numerous excellent students, many of whom went on to win Nobel prizes (von Baeyer, Haber and Lenard [physics]) or become famous names in their own right: Carius, Meyer, Beilstein, Tyndall, Frankland and Mendeleev.

His influence on 19th century chemistry – and thus modern chemistry and indeed industry – is pretty staggering. I think there are quite a few chemists of his era who are overlooked today, partly because they studied such a range of disciplines and partly because it’s very difficult to appreciate what they did when viewed through the cloudy lens of history. We can understand single achievements that are now viewed as easily labelled conceptual leaps in a historical narrative – Wohler’s urea synthesis, Mendeleev’s table or Perkin’s mauveine synthesis – but taking in a career like Bunsen’s requires more effort.


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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