Irving Langmuir Biography (1881-1957)


Irving Langmuir was born in Brooklyn, New York, with an inherent interest inscience but eyesight so poor that he could not make out even the individual leaves on trees. He had his first clear glimpse of the world of nature when hewas fitted with eyeglasses at the age of 11, and from then on he never tiredof studying nature's tiny structures--an atom of hydrogen, for example, or afilm of oil only one molecule thick.

Although Langmuir's father died at an early age, he left his son enough moneyto continue his education in metallurgical engineering at Columbia University. For postgraduate work, Langmuir went to Germany to study chemistry under Walther Hermann Nernst, whose practical approach to science he found appealing. Langmuir's doctoral studies on the Nernst electric lamp laid the foundationfor much of his later work. Perhaps Langmuir was also influenced toward applied science by his older brother Arthur, an industrial chemist. In 1909, after three years of teaching chemistry at the Stevens Institute of Technology inHoboken, New Jersey, Langmuir landed a summer job at General Electric's research laboratory. At the time, GE was renowned for the freedom it gave its scientists to work on whatever interested them, even when that work was unrelated to GE business. This was a great opportunity for Langmuir who had had little time for creative research in his teaching position. He remained at GE forthe rest of his career.

Almost immediately after Langmuir joined GE, his work began paying off. His improvements to GE's incandescent light bulb revolutionized the lighting industry and saved customers millions of dollars in electricity costs. At the time, light bulbs were made by creating a vacuum in the bulb to preserve the filament; Langmuir realized that the filament would last much longer if the bulbwas filled with inert gases such as nitrogen and argon. He also found that the filament became more efficient when tightly coiled. Langmuir's work on light bulbs was but the first of a stream of successes. In the course of his career, he managed to amass 63 patents, a remarkable number, especially given that much of his work was not patentable. He discovered hydrogen in its atomic form as a film inside the bulb, and he invented an atomic hydrogen welding torch, which produces temperatures almost as hot as the sun's surface. His improved vacuum pump quickly entered widespread use in industry and laboratory research and continued to dominate the market for decades. He also invented a family of high- vacuum tubes that proved critical to early radio broadcasting.And in studying the flow of charged particles from hot metals (thermionic emission), Langmuir improved the tungsten filament by coating it with a single layer of thorium atoms.

Many modern scientific disciplines and technologies owe a debt to Langmuir'swork. For example, Langmuir pioneered the study of plasma--the term he introduced to describe a complex, unstable mixture of ionized gases that exhibits unusual electrical and magnetic properties. His plasma research paved the wayfor developments in electron physics, astrophysics, and thermonuclear fusion.As part of this work, Langmuir invented a special probe to measure electrontemperature, an entirely new concept at the time. He also modernized the theory of chemical bonding by introducing the concepts of electrovalency and covalency.

But the research that earned Langmuir the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1932 was in the field of surface chemistry (i.e., the study of chemical forces at the boundaries between two different substances). He was the first industrialscientist to be the recipient of this high award, and as a result, industrialresearch labs gained new respect as havens for creative research. At GE, Langmuir had made the revolutionary discovery that gases would adsorb, or cling,onto the surface of a liquid or solid in an extremely thin layer--only one atom or molecule thick. His most extraordinary work was done with exceedinglythin oil films on water. To aid in this research he invented a device to measure the length and area of individual molecules which is still in use today.His related study of the catalytic action of gas films on platinum wires explained many mysterious surface chemistry phenomena and substantially advancedthe science of catalysis.

Out of Langmuir's work in surface chemistry came the development of nonreflecting glass. During World War I, Langmuir was involved in developing sonic submarine detection ( sonar); he later redirected this work toward improving thequality of phonograph sound recordings. Still active in World War II, he concentrated on improving aircraft de-icing techniques and building better smoke-screen generators. Some of this work led to his controversial attempts in the postwar years to make rain by cloud seeding with chemicals.

Throughout his life, Langmuir maintained a youthful love for the outdoors. Heonce hiked 52 miles in a single day, and he climbed the Matterhorn in Europewith little preparation or conditioning. When his family vacationed at LakeGeorge, New York, Langmuir measured the energy input and output of the lake just for his own pleasure. A competent sailor, Langmuir also learned to fly planes and became a personal friend of Charles Lindbergh. He was much concernedabout public policies on wilderness conservation and atomic energy. He diedof a heart attack in Falmouth, Massachusetts, at the age of 76.

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