Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen was born on March 30, 1811, in Gottingen, Germany. He was the youngest of four sons.
His father was Christian Bunsen, professor of modern languages and head librarian at the University of Göttingen. His mother came from a military family.After he had become a famous professor, Bunsen once recalled that he had been a wayward child at times, but his mother kept him in line.
He attended elementary school and high school in Gottingen. When he reached the age of 15 he moved to the grammar school in Holzminden, about 40 miles (60 km) from Gottingen.In 1828, aged 17, he started work for his degree at the University of Göttingen. He took courses in chemistry, physics and mathematics, with some geology and botany. He won an award for his work on a humidity meter. When he wrote this work up in 1830, he was awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry – he was just 19 years old.
The Bunsen Burner
Chemists and alchemists before them were aware that if you sprinkled a sample of a substance into a flame, the color you saw helped you identify chemical elements in the sample. Lithium compounds, for example, burn with a rose-red flame, while potassium compounds burn with a lilac flame.
This is seen in the chemistry of fireworks, where different colors are produced using salts of different elements.Bunsen had observed that sodium compounds gave an orange-yellow flame.However, the color of the flame itself, before any chemicals were sprinkled into it, could interfere with the test, making it unreliable.
Bunsen’s response was his gas burner. By introducing air into the gas in the correct proportion before it burns, a clean, soot-free, almost colorless flame is produced. Using his burner, Bunsen used flame tests to analyze substances much more reliably than ever before.The burners he designed were made by Peter Desaga, his laboratory assistant.
Bunsen published the design of the burner in 1857, but he did not patent his design. He did not wish to make profits from science; he believed the intellectual rewards were more than enough.His burner is now used not only for flame tests. It is used to heat samples and to sterilize equipment in medical laboratories all over the world.