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Robert Bunsen's 200th Anniversary


Robert Bunsen (1811-1899)
Robert Bunsen (1811-1899)
The 31st of March 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bunsen (1811-1899). Bunsen was a German chemist perhaps most famous for his invention of the Bunsen Burner; this was actually the latest in a series of improvements to the laboratory burners already in use but proved to be the most effective and came to make his name familiar to every young student of the chemical sciences.

Robert Bunsen was one of the most influential chemistry teachers of his time, teaching at the Universities in Marburg, Breslau & Heidelberg as well as the Polytechnic School of Kassel.  Some of his more notable students included Henry Roscoe, Friedrich Beilstein, John Tyndall, Edward Frankland and Dmitri Mendeleev (creator of the Periodic Table).

With Gustav Kirchhoff, Robert Bunsen pioneered the use of spectroscopy in chemical analysis; Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and radiated energy, i.e. when an element is heated, it emits energy in the form of light, this light can then be examined with a spectroscope to determine its unique spectra.  Kirchhoff and Bunsen used this process to eventually discover Caesium and Rubidium.

Bunsen, Kirchhoff & Roscoe (1862)
Bunsen, Kirchhoff & Roscoe (1862)

The RSC archive holds many items written by and about Robert Bunsen.  These include the handwritten 'Photochemical Researches' (c. 1851) conducted by him and Sir Henry Roscoe as well as 'Roscoe's Lectures on Bunsen's and Kirchhoff's Spectrum Observations' (1861) and letters written by Bunsen to Roscoe.

Roscoe and Bunsen were to become lifelong friends as well as collaborators in research, Roscoe said of Bunsen:

'As an investigator he was great, as a teacher he was greater, as a man and friend he was greatest'

Bunsen never married and devoted most of his time to his research and his teaching.  It is clear that he was extremely popular and well-liked by both his contemporaries and his students.  After meeting Bunsen for the first time, Agnes Fischer, the wife of Emil Fischer (another notable German chemist) said,

'First, I would like to wash Bunsen, and then I would like to kiss him because he is such a charming man'

Further Reading

Bunsen, R. 1859, On the Chemical Theory of Gunpowder, Royal Artillery Institution, London (RSC Item ID: HC1855)

Partington, J.R. 1957, Short History of Chemistry, Macmillan & Co., London (RSC Item ID: 24011)

Roscoe, H.E. 1900, 'Bunsen Memorial Lecture', Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions, vol. 77, pp. 513-554 (See journal link below)

Roscoe, H.E. 1900, Bunsen: A Discourse (delivered at the Royal Institution Friday June 1, 1900, Royal Institution, London (RSC Item ID: HC3389)

Roscoe, H.E. 1906, The Life and Experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, Macmillan, London (RSC Item ID: 100068)


Link to journal article

Bunsen Memorial Lecture
Sir Henry Roscoe B.A.Ph.D.D.C.L.LL.D.D.Sc., J. Chem. Soc., Trans., 1900, 77, 513
DOI: 10.1039/CT9007700513


Related Links

Link icon Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff
From the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Link icon Robert Wilhelm Bunsen
From the NNDB

Link icon Robert Bunsen
From Wikipedia


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