Science Diction: The Origin Of 'Bunsen Burner'

Every high school chemist has no doubt fiddled with a Bunsen burner—but where did the apparatus get its name? Science historian Howard Markel talks about the German chemist Robert Bunsen, and why his experiments necessitated the invention of the gas burner still in use today.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The alphabet has only 26 letters. With these 26 magic symbols, however, millions of words are written every day.

FLATOW: Ah, that music means it's time for our monthly episode of Science Diction, where we talk about the origin of scientific words with Howard Markel, professor of history of medicine, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Welcome, Howard.

HOWARD MARKEL: Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: What word do we have today?

MARKEL: Well, it's a great one. It's the Bunsen burner.

FLATOW: Oh, the Bunsen burner.

MARKEL: And we all know what it is. It's the iconic symbol of high school chemistry. But how many people know who Bunsen was?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You're right.

MARKEL: And he was a brilliant chemist, Robert Bunsen was his name. And he was a graduate of the University of Gottingen where his father was the chief librarian. But he actually created with some laboratory assistants the Bunsen burner or the gas burner in 1855. Now, chemistry - these chemists have arguing for years over who deserves the credit. Bunsen and a colleague named Henry Roscoe actually wrote it up in 1857.

But, you know, there were prototypical gas burners even before that, from the 1820s on. But those earlier forms used to produce diffuse and flickering light, and they also would - they were very flammable, no pun intended, and if you didn't put a metal wire over - a mesh, the flames would get all over the place, but that introduced artifactual colors and soot and all other things like that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And was it really basically the same one we have today? No...

MARKEL: Pretty much. I mean, there's been a few, you know, tweaks here and there. But, you know, it's kind of neat. You know, all great laboratory equipment is the result of doing experiments. And Bunsen and his colleagues were trying to look at the spectral analysis of elements and compounds. They had a theory that each compound or element had a fingerprint if you lit it, if you burned it. And you could measure that through a prism.

So that was really novel, but they didn't have a good source of heat to do that. These earlier flames would just be, you know, not sufficient. And they figured this out one day when they - I'm sure you remember doing this in eighth grade - they burned a piece of magnesium. You remember that?

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. Pretty hot.

MARKEL: I can still see that bright light, that bright white light. And then they said, well, maybe other compounds have this as well. So they needed the right type of heat source. And you know, the great unsung heroes of science, I think, are the apparatus beakers, you know, before there, you know, Erlenmeyer flasks. Someone had to blow those and make them. And the same thing with the Bunsen burner was a very neat guy named Peter Desaga. And this - he toyed with the length of the tube and the width of the tube so that created a colorless, sootless flame. It was very hot. It didn't flicker, and it didn't need that wire mesh, so it didn't introduce any artifactual colors.

FLATOW: And there you have it. Thank you, Howard.

MARKEL: Thanks a lot, Ira.

FLATOW: Always a pleasure. Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

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