Langmuir A world-changing engineer, physicist and chemist(1881-1957)
Inventor of better
lightbulbs, high vacuum tubes, surface films, cloud seeding, and many
at General Electric from 1909 to 1950, Langmuir advanced the fields
of physics and chemistry. His great contributions included mathematical
equations, theories and physical inventions. He was awarded the 1932
Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in surface chemistry. In addition
to being a great scientist and engineer Langmuir was known for his well
rounded personality and hobbies. He promoted the growth of the Boy Scouts
of America, led environmental conservation efforts, and pioneered iceboating
and the sport of skiing in North America. He is one of the 20th century's
most fascinating engineers.
Irving Langmuir, an American
chemist and physicist, was born on January 31, 1881, in Brooklyn, NY.
Langmuir graduated with a B.S. from the Columbia University School of
Mines in 1903 and did postgraduate work in chemistry under Nobel laureate
Walther Nernst in Göttingen, Germany. He earned his Ph.D. degree
in 1906. Langmuir's first contribution to society was his work in assisting
Walther Nernst in the creation of the Nernst
Lamp. This lamp was a great improvement over the incandescent lamps
of the time. Ironically Langmuir would later go on to assist General
Electric in developing a light to compete with Nernst's successful creation.
The Nernst Lamp was a sign
that the future of invention would be dominated by engineers with a
background in science. The great era of the "tinkerers" like
Edison who achieved by trial and error was coming to an end. Langmuir
would become one of the great science-educated engineers of the future.
The 1890s and 1910s was the great period of transition to a new era
Below: video on the Nernst
Return to the US:
After picking up the latest
developments in physics and chemistry from Europe, Langmuir returned
to the US. He took his first job at Stevens Institute of Technology
in Hoboken, NJ until 1909. He worked long hours for low pay at the educational
institution. He saw education jobs of the time in the United States
to be hopelessly underpaid. He decided to make the move to the commercial
realm and applied for a job at General Electric.
Research Laboratory in Schenectady, NY was newly established when
Langmuir joined. The lab had been created in order to compete with developments
coming out of Germany. By collecting scientific minds in one lab and
encouraging communication, GE management felt it could create an environment
ripe for developing the next great and lucrative invention. Although
the lab environment was quite open and encouraged exploration of all
ideas, they did have several directed efforts.
Above: The early days of
the GE Research Lab. The short man on the left with glasses is C.P.
Steinmetz. He pioneered AC
power developments and founded the lab.
The Lightbulb Race:
General Electric had been
born from many companies in 1892. Thomas Edison's lightbulb patents
had kept revenue coming in for years. The Nernst Lamp and tantalum lightbulb
emerged as a major threat after 1901. GE management set lab workers
to the task of making the next great lamp, one that would last longer
and work at a better efficiency. Material used in lightbulb incandescent
filaments needed the common trait of having a high melting point, this
way the filament would get hot enough to emit light, but not break down.
Physics was key to pressing the limits of lightbulb performance because
engineers could use variations in pressure and elements to achieve new
results. Langmuir was one of the new students of physics who could decode
a world which Edison had only scratched the surface of.
point at sea level
3020 C (5486 F)
3422 C (6191 F)
3550 C (6422 F)
Coworker William D. Coolidge
made the greatest development in electric lighting in the 20th century
when he developed a ductile tungsten filament. Tungsten had been too
fragile to be serious competition to the Siemens-Halske tantalum filament.
The ductile tungsten filament lasted longer than any other lamp, was
more durable, and was cheap to make. Langmuir immediately jumped in
on experimentation with tungsten filament bulbs and vacuum tubes.
Photo Above: Langmuir(left)
and lab director Willis Whitney(center) pose for a film with a new lightbulb
His initial contributions
to General Electric and science came from his study of light bulbs (which
was a continuation of his Ph.D. work). First his improvement of vacuum
techniques led to the invention of the high-vacuum tube. A year later
he discovered that the lifetime of a tungsten filament was greatly lengthened
by filling the bulb with an inert gas, such as argon, which is an important
part of the modern day incandescent light bulb.
Below: A video on the
incandescent bulb which highlights Langmuir's work towards the end:
Schenectady, New York:
Joining the "GE Family"
Langmuir settled in Schenectady
not far from other greatly talented individuals. His neighborhood called
the "GE plot" contained a small community of scientists and
managers living in luxurious houses. This close knit social network
contained greats like Charles Steinmetz, Willis Whitney, EW Rice and
more. He married Marion Mersereau in 1912. They had a son, Kenneth,
and a daughter, Barbara. Children of the GE plot could walk between
houses since all lived within one square mile, families of PR managers,
finance men, executives, and engineers mingled and the concept of the
"GE Family" was born.
Above: Langmuir the family
The Langmuir Equation:
In 1916 while at the lab
Langmuir created the Langmuir Equation which has become a vital mathematical
tool in working with surface chemistry. The equation helps one understand
how molecules will coat a solid surface when the medium above is at
a given concentration or pressure at a fixed temperature. When molecules
cover a surface in a single layer there are only certain numbers of
empty spaces left which become filled depending on the pressure of the
gas. You can think of this as a flat surface covered in balls (molecules).
Each ball has a given width and you can only squeeze so many onto the
surface. The pressure of the gas above determines how easily more can
be squeezed onto the surface. At a certain point it will become 100%
gas pressure / concentration Alfa - is the Langmuir adsorption constant Theta - fractional coverage of the surface
Learn more about it here.
Application of the Langmuir
Equation: Langmuir developed a hydrogen molecular coating on the
inside of the lightbulb. This helped increase the life of the bulb by
decreasing the amount of blackening which occurs over time.
and Physics Studies:
As he continued to study
filaments in a vacuum and different gas environments he began to study
the emission of charged particles from hot filaments (thermionic emission).
He was one of the first scientists to work with plasmas
and was the first to call these ionized gases by that name.
Irving Langmuir developed
a life long friendship with world science icon Niels Bohr. Bohr
visited Langmuir at his home in Schenectady and the two would
meet at many conferences around the world over the years.
Photo left: Bohr
and Langmuir in Europe
the concept of electron temperature and in 1924 invented the diagnostic
method for measuring both temperature and density with a thermionic
probe, now called a Langmuir
probe. This is commonly used in plasma physics. The current
of a biased probe tip is measured as a function of bias voltage
to determine the local plasma temperature and density.
and scientific icon J.J. Thomson
Below: A Langmuir Probe
Photo: Swedish Institute
of Space Physics
also discovered atomic hydrogen, which he put to use by inventing
the atomic hydrogen welding process. "AHW" as it is
also known reaches temperatures of up to 4000 C (the acetylene
torch only reaches a maximum of 3300 C.). The high temperatures
made it possible to melt chromium and aluminum.
The process uses
two tungsten electrodes in a hydrogen gas.The gas atmosphere
protects metals from being contaminated by oxygen and other
gases in the earth's atmosphere. Normally in welding "flux"
is used to to remove impurities and prevent oxides from forming
as one welds. In AHW less flux is required.
Below: 1921 New Jersey
- Langmuir stands among some of the greatest inventors and scientists
of the time.
Following World War I, Langmuir
contributed to atomic theory and the understanding of atomic structure
by defining the modern concept of valence shells and isotopes.
Langmuir attended the 1927
Solvay Physics Conference, Brussels, Belgium. You can learn more about
this conference in a video here.
The photo below shows some of the participants including Langmuir.
Irving Langmuir joined Katherine
Blodgett to study thin films and surface adsorption. They introduced
the concept of a monolayer (a layer of material one molecule thick)
and the two dimensional physics which describes such a surface. In 1932
he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry "for his discoveries
and investigations in surface chemistry."
Molecular coatings were implemented
in film cameras starting with "Gone with the Wind". The coatings
are also used on aircraft parts to make it harder for ice to form on
chemistry can be roughly defined as the study of chemical reactions
at interfaces. It is closely related to surface engineering,
which aims at modifying the chemical composition of a surface
by incorporation of selected elements or functional groups that
produce various desired effects or improvements in the properties
of the surface or interface." - Wikipedia
Master of Weather
During World War
II, Langmuir worked to further develop protective smoke screens
and methods for deicing aircraft wings. This research led him
to discover that the introduction of dry ice and iodide into
a sufficiently moist cloud of low temperature could induce precipitation,
allowing some degree of weather control.
Langmuir and assistant
Vincent Schaefer worked closely together during the development
of cloud seeding. Technological developments where man "plays
god" do seem attract a lot of attention, and this is what
happened. The media attention was not always welcome. When the
lab attempted to cloud seed a hurricane off the US east coast
in order to weaken it, the hurricane changed course and struck
the Carolinas causing a lot of damage. After this event General
Electric did not get involved in any further efforts to control
hurricanes. Cloud seeding is used today around the world for
other purposes. Vail Resorts in Colorado uses ground based cloud
seeding to induce snowfall in the immediate vicinity of it's
ski resorts. Cloud seeding is used in some semiarid climates
to increase rainfall for crops.
Photo Above: Langmuir
and Vincent Schaefer. Schaefer was a lab assistant who despite not having
a formal education was a genius in developing new inventions. He and
Langmuir worked together to develop cloud seeding.
Photo Below: The team
at General Electric first tested cloud seeding over the small city of
Amsterdam, New York. In the photo you can see how dropping silver iodide
below the plane as the plane pulled a U-turn condensed water droplets
and induced rain.
In connection with Langmuir's
work with weather was his fascination with nature. He did a wide variety
of outdoor sports and promoted these sports in his community. He loved
flying, sailing, swimming, ice boating, backcountry skiing, and anything
else that caught is his adventuresome spirit.
Langmuir loved sailing among other hobbies. His hobbies led him
on many trips to beautiful places around the world.
Langmuir in the Alps, he learned to ski from the first generation
of ski mountaineers in Austria.
The First Ski
Langmuir was the
first person to bring modern ski-mountaineering technique to
North America and spread the concept of "mountain skiing".
When going to school
in Germany from 1903-1906 he took frequent trips to the Alps
where he learned the Arlberg technique of skiing. This technique
allowed people to ski from high and steep summits for the first
time. As soon as Langmuir returned to New York he set about
on a series of first descents. While skiing had already been
in North America for over 50 years, no one had put emphasis
on skiing mountains from top to bottom. Skiing had been viewed
before as just a means of delivering mail through the Sierras,
or playing around on the side of a hill with friends.
and skied several thousand vertical feet from the summit of Slide and
Wittenberg Mountains in the Catskills in late February
of 1907. The steep wooded north facing slopes riddled with small
cliffs were only possible using his latest ski binding technology along
with advanced turning techniques from Austria. This became the first
event of ski mountaineering in North America.
After this feat
he made first ski descents of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts and Haystack
Mtn in the Adirondacks. He influenced and encouraged people like John
Apperson who went on to become legends in the early days of skiing.
Two years later The Dartmouth Outing Club follows Langmuir's lead and
takes on mountain skiing. They perform the first ski descents of Washington,
Katahdin and other challenging summits of the Northeast.
many kids to ski on group outings into the Adirondacks. At this time,
prior to the 1932 Olympics, skiing was far from being a mainstream sport.
He encouraged the early growth of skiing and started a spark which lead
to widespread growth. After the 32' Olympics in Lake Placid the radio
coverage of skiing events caused the first countrywide explosion in
popularity. On a side note Langmuir was the first person in the Northeast
to bring and promote metal edged skis from Europe. He would take teenagers
in groups up to the Lake George and North Creek regions to ski. He encouraged
others to build their own skis, or modify their skis with homemade metal
edges. In the beginning (prior to 1930s) skis were not available in
stores. In garages across the 'GE Plot' neighborhood kids were building
their own skis to be used at Gore Mountain. Irving Langmuir and GE Research
Lab Director Guy Suits helped organize the first snow trains up to the
Adirondacks. These GE engineers and other parents doubled as chaperones
to trainloads of kids. Langmuir made his mark in the history of skiing
skiing on Ausable Lakes in the Adirondack Mountains
Irving Langmuir and
friend John Apperson were involved in the blooming conservation
efforts in the Adirondack Mountains. This 6 million acre area
had been logged for years, and other forms development threatened
to follow this first wave of human use. Langmuir and other GE
engineers used the mountains as a playground for boating, iceboating,
skiing, and other activities. Their viewpoint was that this
was everyone's recreational grounds and it must be protected.
a very strong activist in promotion of conservation. Apperson and Langmuir
believed that the islands of Lake George belonged to the public. This
viewpoint differed with some General Electric Executives. Apperson's
quasi-illegal antics in protest of development lead to trouble. Luckily
Apperson had friends in the right places and Langmuir was able to help
him save his job. There was a feeling among many engineers in Schenectady
that conservation was important despite the viewpoints of most citizens
of the industrial revolution period. Many engineers provided financial
support to state lobbyists. The Adirondack Park's unique laws are a
product of the early work of New York State conservationists.
FULL STORY on DVD:
Langmuir's World - Watch the promo below and order using the contact
at the end
General Electric Story - By the Hall of History
Langmuir's World - by Roger Summerhayes
The Schenectady Museum
Wild Snow by Lou Dawson
The Adirondack Research Library, Niskayuna, NY
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