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Irving Langmuir

Irving LangmuirBorn: 31-Jan-1881
Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY
Died: 16-Aug-1957
Location of death: Woods Hole, MA
Cause of death: Heart Failure

Gender: Male
Religion: Agnostic [1]
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist, Physicist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Inventor of the high-vacuum tube

American chemist and physicist Irving Langmuir was nearly blind for the first eleven years of his life, until his vision problems were diagnosed and he was fitted with glasses at the age of 11. He soon showed a remarkable affinity for science, and as a young man he attended the University of Göttingen and studied under Walther Nernst. He taught for several years at a small college in Hoboken, New Jersey, until 1909, when he took summer work at General Electric's research labs. He quickly came to the attention of the unit's manager, who offered a permanent position at a higher wage than Langmuir's teaching job paid. In his long career at GE, Langmuir was given extraordinarily wide latitude to explore whatever intrigued him. In 1932 he became the first industrial chemist to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his 1919 concentric theory of atomic structure, detailing the chemical forces at the boundaries between different substances.

His other career landmarks include the 1912 invention of the high-vacuum electron tube, later used extensively in broadcasting, and his 1913 study of the high-temperature surface chemistry of tungsten, which led to his invention of a gas-filled incandescent lamp that was much longer-lasting than previous tungsten-filament bulbs. 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, and in the same year he invented a hydrogen blowtorch for welding metals at extreme high temperatures. In 1946, with Vincent Schaefer, he discovered that clouds can be seeded with dry ice and iodide to trigger a reaction producing rain or snow. He also conducted respected research into aircraft de-icing techniques, chemical bond formation, filtration, heat transfer, incandescent lamps, low-pressure phenomena, non-reflecting glass, octet atomic theory, thermionic phenomena, smokescreen generators, and submarine sonar.

He is the namesake of the Langmuir isotherm (sometimes called the Langmuir adsorption equation), a mathematical expression of the relationship between gas pressure at constant temperatures and the amount of adsorption on a surface, and of Langmuir cells, long, rotating "cells" of water predicted by Langmuir many years before their actual discovery. An accomplished mountain-climber, he is also the namesake of an Alaskan peak, Mount Langmuir. He was an uncle to epidemiologist and Centers for Disease Control co-founder Alexander D. Langmuir (1910-93), and a friend and frequent flying companion of Charles Lindbergh. Kurt Vonnegut worked briefly in Langmuir's lab at GE, and years later said that Langmuir had been the inspiration for Dr Felix Hoenikker, the central character in Vonnegut's satirical science-fiction novel Cat's Cradle.

[1] About his inattention to religion, his usual response was, "Never believe anything that can't be proved."

Father: Charles Langmuir
Mother: Sadie Comings Langmuir
Brother: Arthur Langmuir (chemist)
Wife: Marion Mersereau Langmuir (m. 1912, one son, one daughter)
Son: Kenneth Langmuir
Daughter: Barbara Langmuir

    High School: Chestnut Hill Academy, Philadelphia, PA (attended)
    High School: Pratt Institute's Manual Training High School, Brooklyn, NY (1899)
BS Metallurgical Engineering, Columbia University (1903)
    University: MA Chemistry, University of Göttingen (1906)
    University: PhD Chemistry, University of Göttingen (1906)
    Teacher: Chemistry, Stevens Institute of Technology (1906-09)

    General Electric Research scientist, Schenectady, NY (1909-50)
    Nichols Medal 1915
    Hughes Medal 1918
    Nichols Medal 1920
    Rumford Prize 1920
    Cannizzaro Prize of the Accademia dei Lincei 1925
    Perkin Medal 1928
    Chandler Medal 1929
    Willard Gibbs Medal 1930
    Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1932
    Benjamin Franklin Medal 1934 (by the Franklin Institute)
    ASME Holly Medal 1934
    John Scott Medal 1937
    IET Faraday Medal 1944
    Mascart Medal of the Societe Francaise des Electriciens 1950
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Physical Society
    American Chemical Society President (1929)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science President (1943)
    British Chemical Society Foreign Member
    Royal Society Foreign Member
    Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society
    Heart Attack 16-Aug-1957 (fatal)
    Lunar Crater Langmuir (35.7° S 128.4° W, 91 km. diameter)
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1989

Appears on the cover of:
Time, 28-Aug-1950

Author of books:
Phenomena, Atoms and Molecules (1950, non-fiction)
The Collected Works of Irving Langmuir (1961, papers; 12 volumes)

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