Irving Langmuir

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Irving Langmuir : biography

31 January 1881 – 16 August 1957

Irving Langmuir "Langmuir, Irving", in Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (1943), Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. (31 January 1881 – 16 August 1957) was an American chemist and physicist. His most noted publication was the famous 1919 article "The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules" in which, building on Gilbert N. Lewis’s cubical atom theory and Walther Kossel’s chemical bonding theory, he outlined his "concentric theory of atomic structure".Langmuir, I. (1919). "", Journal of the American Chemical Society. Vol. 41, No. 6, 868. Langmuir became embroiled in a priority dispute with Lewis over this work; Langmuir’s presentation skills were largely responsible for the popularization of the theory, although the credit for the theory itself belongs mostly to Lewis.Patrick Coffey, Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry, Oxford University Press, 2008: 134-146 While at General Electric, from 1909–1950, Langmuir advanced several basic fields of physics and chemistry, invented the gas-filled incandescent lamp, the hydrogen welding technique, and was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in surface chemistry. The Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research near Socorro, New Mexico, was named in his honor as was the American Chemical Society journal for Surface Science, called Langmuir.


  • Langmuir, , "Incandescent Electric Lamp"
  • Langmuir, , "Electron-discharge apparatus and method of operating the same"
  • Langmuir, , "Method of and apparatus for controlling x-ray tubes"


Early years

Irving Langmuir was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 31 January 1881. He was the third of the four children of Charles Langmuir and Sadie, née Comings. During his childhood, Langmuir’s parents encouraged him to carefully observe nature and to keep a detailed record of his various observations. When Irving was eleven, it was discovered that he had poor eyesight. When this problem was corrected, details that had previously eluded him were revealed, and his interest in the complications of nature was heightened.

During his childhood, Langmuir was influenced by his older brother, Arthur Langmuir. Arthur was a research chemist who encouraged Irving to be curious about nature and how things work. Arthur helped Irving set up his first chemistry lab in the corner of his bedroom, and he was content to answer the myriad of questions that Irving would pose. Langmuir’s hobbies included mountaineering, skiing, piloting his own plane, and classical music. In addition to his professional interest in the politics of atomic energy, he was concerned about wilderness conservation.


Langmuir attended his early education at various schools and institutes in America and Paris (1892–1895). Langmuir graduated high school from Chestnut Hill Academy (1898), an elite private school located in the affluent Chestnut Hill area in Philadelphia. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in metallurgical engineering (Met.E.) from the Columbia University School of Mines (the first mining and metallurgy school in the U.S., established,1864 and presently known as Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science) in 1903. He earned his Ph.D. degree in 1906 under Nobel laureate Walther Nernst in Göttingen, for research done using the "Nernst glower", an electric lamp invented by Nernst. His doctoral thesis was entitled “On the Partial Recombination of Dissolved Gases During Cooling.” He later did postgraduate work in chemistry. Langmuir then taught at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, until 1909, when he began working at the General Electric research laboratory (Schenectady, New York).


His initial contributions to science came from his study of light bulbs (a continuation of his Ph.D. work). His first major development was the improvement of the diffusion pump, which ultimately led to the invention of the high-vacuum tube. A year later, he and colleague Lewi Tonks discovered that the lifetime of a tungsten filament was greatly lengthened by filling the bulb with an inert gas, such as argon. He also discovered that twisting the filament into a tight coil improved its efficiency. These were important developments in the history of the incandescent light bulb. His work in surface chemistry began at this point, when he discovered that molecular hydrogen introduced into a tungsten-filament bulb dissociated into atomic hydrogen and formed a layer one atom thick on the surface of the bulb.Coffey, Cathedrals of Science: 64-70