An Aside on the Bunsen Burner

Return to Spectrum History

Robert Bunsen invented the burner that bears his name sometime in 1855. For a number of years he had been considering the problem, not only of lighting the laboratory room itself, but also developing a better heat source for lab work. Up until his invention, the flames produced had all been smokly, excessively flickering ones of low heat intensity.

The groundwork was laid three years prior when Bunsen moved to the University of Heidelberg. As a condition of his coming, he insisted on a new laboratory building and he also wanted gas piping included. The city of Heidelberg had just acquired a gas works to light the city streets. Bunsen got what he wanted.

The idea Bunsen had was simple. Instead if mixing the gas with the air right at the point of combustion, he proposed mixing the gas with the air BEFORE combustion. He went to the university mechanic, Peter Desaga, who designed and built the burner according the Bunsen's specifications. His son, Carl Desaga, wound up founding the firm C. Desaga, Factory for Scientific Apparatus, to handle the demands that began flowing in from all the world.

Finally, two years later in 1857, does Bunsen get around to describing his burner. In an article co-authored by Henry Roscoe, they write: Bunsen burner image

. . . which one of us has devised and introduced in place of the wire gauze burners in the the laboratory here, and which is better suited than any other appliance for producing steady flames of different luminosity, color, and form. The principle of this burner is simply that city gas is allowed to issue under such conditions that by its own movement it carries along and mixes with itself precisely enough air so that the resulting air-bearing gas mixture is just at the limit where it has not yet acquired the ability to propagate the flame through itself. In Figure 6 [image to right] a is an ordinary cross cut burner rising in the center of the cylindrical space b to the same height as the cube cccc. The cylindrical space b, which is 15 mm. deep and has a diameter of 10 mm., communicates with the outside air through the four holes d, which are 7 mm. in diameter. If the tube ee, which is 8.5 mm. wide and 75 mm. long is screwed into the cylinder, it sucks in so much air through the openings d that it burns at the mouth of the tube e with a nonluminous, perfectly soot-free flame. The brightness of the gas thus mixed with air hardly exceeds that of a hydrogen flame. After the openings d are closed, the bright and sooting illuminating gas flame reappears. [from Poggendorffs Ann. Physik, 100, p. 84-5.]

Although no records exist, it is probably Peter Desaga who contributed the modern design of two large holes with a rotatable, perforated ring. Bunsen and Desaga did not apply for patent protection on their burner and it was quite soon that others began to produce their own versions. Some even went so far as to claim the invention as their own, including one person who was granted a patent on the device. Both Bunsen and Desaga were involved in writing letters to the proper authorities to refute these claims.

Return to Spectrum History