Though he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932, to simply label Irving Langmuir a chemist would be a discredit to the man. Professionally, he also could be described as a physicist, an engineer and an inventor. His discoveries helped lay the foundations for the fields now known as electronics, atmospheric science and materials science.
Irving Langmuir was born in Brooklyn on January 31, 1881. From an early age, his parents and older brother fostered his curiosity and taught him how to think scientifically. He attended schools in Pennsylvania, New York and Paris prior to entering the Columbia University School of Mines, where he graduated in 1903 with a degree in metallurgical engineering.
After completing his undergraduate work, Langmuir was accepted to study at the University of Gottingen in Germany under Walther Nernst (who would receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1920). He assisted Nernst with the development of the "Nernst glower," a specialized incandescent bulb that uses filaments made from the oxides of rare earth elements. Langmuir studied at Gottingen for three years, earning both his M.A. and Ph.D. in chemistry.
Following a three year teaching stint at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Langmuir took a term position researching at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. After a few months, the director of the laboratory recognized Langmuir’s brilliance, and persuaded him to take a permanent position at GE, complete with a full research staff and the leeway to take his work in whatever direction he wanted. Using his postgraduate research experience, he began working with incandescent lamps. Eventually, this research led to his 1913 invention of a gas-filled incandescent lamp which used a charged tungsten filament enveloped in a vacuum-sealed container of inert gas (usually argon or nitrogen-argon). In other words, the modern light bulb.
While working with incandescent lamps, Langmuir also made significant advances to the vacuum tube and vacuum pumps, work whose merit would only be recognized several decades later. In his electron-filled vacuum tubes, Langmuir became the first to isolate and identify atomic hydrogen. He subsequently exploited this discovery by developing the atomic hydrogen welding process, a form of arc welding.
Langmuir’s work with filaments resulted in the identification and observation of monatomic adsorbed films on filaments, which led him to develop theories on how these films are formed. The Langmuir Isotherm is an expression used to describe the effects of surface area, pressure and temperature on the adsorption of a gas onto a surface.
When Langmuir was awarded the Nobel, however, it wasn’t primarily for his practical work. For each technological advance that he made, he accompanied it with great leaps in theoretical chemistry as well. He was among the first chemists to accurately describe electron energy states and explain ionic bonding. He coined the term "valence" to describe the outermost shell of electrons in an atom. He helped clarify the structure of the atom. Following in the steps of his mentor Nernst, Langmuir also experimented with superheated gases, and coined the term "plasma" to describe the distinct properties of these gases.
During the two World Wars, Langmuir did his patriotic duty. During World War I, he worked at the United States Navy’s Office of Scientific Research and Development and contributed to the development and refinement of anti-submarine devices such as ASDIC and hydrophones. During World War II, he helped improve the effectiveness of smokescreens, and he developed treatments to de-ice aircraft wings.
Following World War II, Langmuir became interested in atmospheric science, and went to work at the New Mexico School of Mines (leaving GE in the process, except as a consultant). There, he studied atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns, and tested ways to chemically "seed" rainclouds. Through a bequest from Langmuir’s estate, New Mexico Tech offers the Langmuir Award for Excellence in Research. The school also named its atmospheric research facility after Langmuir.
Aside from the Nobel, Langmuir accumulated a plethora of honors and awards, including 22 medals. Universities like Oxford, Princeton and Harvard (as well as 12 others) bestoed Langmuir with honorary degrees. The American Chemical Society (which he led as president in 1929), named its journal (Langmuir) in his honor and also presents the Irving Langmuir Award for physical chemistry. Alaska is home to Mount Langmuir; SUNY – Stony Brook named their Irving Langmuir College after him.
Langmuir was an avid outdoorsman, traveller and mountaineer, and may be the only Nobelist to have ascended the Matterhorn. He passed away in 1957, at the age of 76.
Invent Now Hall of Fame - http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/92.html
Nobel e-Museum: Irving Langmuir Biography - http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1932/langmuir-bio.html
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation - http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/chemistry/institutes/1992/Langmuir.html
Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research - http://www.ee.nmt.edu/~langmuir/