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Flashback Friday: Bunsen Burner

by Traci Avet on 2024-06-14T08:21:38-07:00 in Flashback Friday, History, Humanities | 0 Comments

scientist with bunsen burnerIn 1847, chemistry professor Dr. Robert Bunsen and his lab technician Peter Desaga were truly playing with fire at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. His primary research focus was on cataloging the rainbow of colors ("emission spectra") of elements, whereby each element emits a specific color when heated with a flame. They were using a coal burner whose original designer is believed to be Michael Faraday, which combined air with a flame. But the design of the existing burner made the elemental colors difficult to isolate; its components often yielded a flame yellowed from carbon, and the soot it produced further obscured any emerging colors.

After experimenting with adjustments to the burner’s mesh and tubing, a successful reworking emerged on June 14, 1847. Now known as the Bunsen burner, the new design produced a colorless, sootless flame that allowed for a cleaner identification of the emission spectra of elements. Later, Bunsen and physicist Gustav Kirchhoff used the burner with a spectroscope to discover cesium and rubidium, two previously unknown elements. Like Faraday, Bunsen didn’t seek a patent for his burner. But he ultimately shared it with others researching spectroscopy before presenting it to the science community at large.

Bunsen might be best known for chemistry and spectroscopy among scientists, but impacts from his research on future developments spill far beyond the lab: from home stoves and gas furnaces to an antidote to arsenic poisoning, from geyser analysis to flash photography and pyrotechnics. So when you’re experiencing that incredible kaleidoscope of July fireworks a few weeks from now, be sure to include a little toast to Dr. Bunsen and the colorful research his burner made possible 177 years ago today. 


Traci AvetTraci Avet is a librarian who has worked in libraries for over twenty years, and has had the pleasure of experiencing vast card catalogs and due-date card stamping.

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