Profile: Irving Langmuir

Posted on June 20, 2012


Irving Langmuir 1881-1957

Irving Langmuir was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1881. He graduated as a metallurgical engineer from the School of Mines at Columbia University in 1903. He obtained an MA and PhD from Göttingen for work in Physical Chemistry under Walther Nernst.

Langmuir worked as an Instructor in Chemistry at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey from 1906 to 1909. He then entered the Research Laboratory of the General Electric Company at Schenectady where he eventually became Associate Director. He worked there until his retirement in 1950.

He investigated the properties of absorbed films and the nature of electric discharges in high vacuum and in certain gases at low pressures.

Langmuir’s work on filaments in gases led directly to the invention of the gas filled incandescent lamp and to the discovery of atomic hydrogen. He later used the latter in the development of the atomic hydrogen welding process.

He was the first to observe the very stable adsorbed monatomic films on tungsten and platinum filaments, and was able, after experiments with oil films on water, to formulate a general theory of adsorbed films. He also studied the catalytic properties of such films.

Langmuir’s work on space charge effects and related phenomena led to many important technical developments which have had huge effect on later technology. He coined the term covalence in about 1915, a reference to the number of electron pairs an atom can share with other atoms. In 1927 he became the first scientist to use the term plasma to describe an ionized gas.

Langmuir contributed to the technology employed in both World Wars. During World War I, the he helped in developing submarine detection devices. His work in this area later led to peace-time uses. During World War II Langmuir worked with Vincent Schaefer, also of General Electric, and Bernard Vonnegut, developing protective smoke screens and methods for de-icing aricraft wings. This research led him to work in the controversial area of weather control, using dry ice pellets and silver iodide crystals to seed clouds.

Langmuir won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1932 “for his discoveries and investigations in surface chemistry”. This related to his 1919 concentric theory of atomic structure, detailing the chemical forces at the boundaries between different substances.

He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Chemical Society. He was president of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1923.

He enjoyed mountaineering and is the namesake of Mount Langmuir, a peak in Alaska. He also enjoyed skiing and flying. He married Marion Mersereau in 1912. They had a son, Kenneth, and a daughter, Barbara.

Dr Langmuir died on August 16, 1957 in Falmouth, Massachusetts after a short illness.

Among the awards made to him were: Nichols Medal, (1915 and 1920); Hughes Medal (1918); Rumford Medal (1921); Cannizzaro Prize (1925); Perkin Medal (1928); School of Mines Medal (Columbia University, 1929); Chardler Medal (1929); Willard Gibbs Medal (1930); Popular Science Monthly Award (1932); Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1932); Franklin Medal and Holly Medal (1934); John Scott Award (I937); “Modern Pioneer of Industry” (1940); Faraday Medal (1944); Mascart Medal (1950). In addition, he was a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Honorary Member of the British Institute of Metals, and of the Chemical Society (London). He had served as President of the American Chemical Society and as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Honorary degrees were bestowed upon Langmuir by the following colleges and universities: Northwestern, Union, Edinburgh (Scotland), Columbia, Kenyon, Princeton, Lehigh, Harvard, Oxford, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers, Queens (Canada), and Stevens Institute of Technology.


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