In the 19th – century Germany a kind of scientific aristocracy developed. At that time, chemists were very important people, held in great esteem by the rest of the population. Not only did they gain respect but the successful scientists were often very well paid and able to entertain on a lavish scale. The general atmosphere of chemical fervour attracted the best brains of other countries and no one could really claim to be an accomplished chemist until he had studied in Germany.
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811 – 1899) was one of the most colourful characters on the 19th-century Germany scene. He first started his studies of zoology, chemistry and physics at his home town of Gottingen in Germany and followed this up with more studying in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. Finally, in 1852 he was made professor of chemistry at Heidelberg University
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen was a fearless experimenter. In the course of one experiment, he lost sight of one eye, but this did not stop him from repeating the same experiment for his students, terrifying the ones sitting in the front row. Another time he nearly killed himself with arsenic poisoning. While experimenting with arsenic he discovered that hydrated ferric oxide was a successful antidote to the poison.
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen’s name is chiefly remembered for the piece of laboratory equipment named after him – the Bunsen Burner. Gas was the obvious laboratory fuel, but if you just open a gas tap and put a light to the jet, a wispy, luminous, comparatively cool flame is produced. There is not sufficient oxygen for the gas to burn completely and unburnt carbon deposits itself as a black layer on anything being heated in the flame.
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen designed his burner to make the gas flame more efficient so that it was hotter and did not deposit soot. He did this by having an air hole of variable size at the bottom of the chimney. A draught of air was then swept up with the gas stream. To get a clean roaring flame the mixture must contain about 2 ½ times as much air as it does gas. If too much air is allowed in, the flame travels down more quickly than the gas stream movies up, making the burner light from the bottom of the chimney instead of the top. (i.e. strike back). Robert Wilhelm Bunsen experimented with chimney sizes, and different sized air holes until he found a satisfactory result.
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen did not concentrate all his efforts in one direction, but made important discoveries in several different fields. He invented a carbon-zinc electric cell and an ice calorimeter. He separated the metal magnesium in quite large quantities and used some of it as a source of light. He worked on gas analysis and also studied the solubilities of gases in liquids. Another invention, the Bunsen grease spot photometer, a device for comparing intensities of light sources also still bears his name.
Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and his co-worker Kirchhoff made a study of the spectra given out when elements were heated. Two unidentified spectra led these men to discover two new metals, rubidium and caesium.
After a very active life Robert Wilhelm Bunsen dies in 1899 at the age of 88.