Bunsen, Robert Wilhelm von

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Bunsen, Robert Wilhelm von


Born Mar. 31, 1811, in Göttingen; died Aug. 16, 1899, in Heidelberg. German chemist; foreign corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1862). Became a professor at the University of Marburg in 1838 and was a professor at the University of Heidelberg from 1852 to 1889. Engaged in experimental research, mainly in the fields of inorganic, analytical, and physical chemistry.

Bunsen’s first major work was the investigation of a number of organic compounds of arsenic (1837-43). The work was extremely difficult and dangerous (he lost an eye in a laboratory explosion and suffered severe arsenic poisoning). The substances obtained by Bunsen began to be treated as derivatives of the complex cacodyl radical As(CH3)2 and were considered a telling argument in favor of the theory of radicals.

In 1841, Bunsen invented the carbon-zinc galvanic cell. Using batteries of these cells, he obtained metallic magnesium in 1852 and, in 1854-55, lithium, calcium, strontium, and barium by electrolysis of their smelted chlorides. In studying the processes of extracting cast iron in blast furnaces and the composition of blast-furnace gases (1838 and 1845), Bunsen developed extremely accurate methods of gas analysis, which he described in Gasometric Methods (1857).

In 1854, in collaboration with the German physicist G. R. Kirchhoff, Bunsen began the study of the spectra of flames colored with vapors of various metallic salts. As a result, both these researchers in 1859 laid the foundation for spectral analysis, which has found wide application in chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Bunsen and Kirchhoff discovered cesium (1860) and rubidium (1861) by means of spectral analysis. In the early 1850’s, in collaboration with the English chemist H. Roscoe, Bunsen began research that promoted the development of the study of the chemical action of light—photochemistry. Bunsen invented many laboratory instruments, including a photometer with a grease spot (1843), a gas burner (1855), and an ice calorimeter (1870).

Many chemists—among them A. Bayer, F. F. Beil’shtein, H. H. Landolt, V. Meyer, H. Roscoe, and L. N. Shishkov—received experimental training in Bunsen’s laboratory.


Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vols. 1-3. Leipzig, 1904.


Arkhangel’skii, P. A. “Robert Bunzen (1811-1899).” Priroda, 1937, no. 1.
Partington, J. R. A History of Chemistry, vol. 4. London-New York, 1964. Pages 281-93.
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