This future Nobel prize winner was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1881. From an early age his parents encouraged him to be a careful observer of nature and to keep detailed records of those observations. At age eleven, when his poor eyesight was detected, details that were previously hidden to him were revealed and he was from then on intrigued by the intricate nature of the world now open to his observation.
Langmuir was greatly influenced by his brother, Arthur, a research chemist who encouraged Irving's curious nature. He helped him set up his first lab in a corner of his bedroom; he patiently answered the young boy's questions about simple matters - why does water boil ? why does rain fall ?
In 1892, the family moved to Paris. Irving's intellectual curiosity was stifled by the traditional, rigid schooling he encountered there. He was happy to return to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Hill Academy where a special teacher was able to rekindle his former fervor. He then attended and graduated from the Pratt Institute's Manual Training High School in Brooklyn, and went on to receive a B.S. in metallurgical engineering from Columbia School of Mines in 1903.
Langmuir chose Gottingen University for his post graduate work. This decision would prove to be a fortunate one because working under Walther Nernst, who was both a theoretician and an inventor, led Langmuir to the applied research that became the foundation of his career. He received his PhD in 1906 for research done using the "Nernst glower", an electric lamp invented by Nernst. The goal of his research at Gottingen was to determine what happened to various gases produced in the presence of a hot platinum wire. This laid the groundwork for many of his later interests.
Langmuir returned to the United States and accepted a position as a chemistry teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1909, Langmuir had the opportunity to spend a summer vacation doing research with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. The director of the research laboratory, Dr. Willis R. Whitney, recognized the potential of this young teacher and persuaded him to join General Electric. Whitney offered him both the freedom and funding to do pure research and placed a staff of research workers at his disposal. Given the luxury of working 'for fun', he and his small team of associates carried on wide-ranging research which more than rewarded G.E. for the confidence placed in him and the freedom granted to him. General Electric was the beneficiary of many of his inventions -- the mercury-condensation vacuum pump, the nitrogen-argon-filled incandescent lamp, and an entire family of high-vacuum radio tubes. As a consequence of the success of his research methods, other corporations as well as governmental agencies were encouraged to invest large sums of money in unrestricted research.
Langmuir's major research started with a light bulb - the same type that had inspired him at Gottingen. The light bulb presented him with many avenues of investigation. It provided a vehicle for the study of a vacuum or it could serve as a container for studying a gas at varying temperatures and pressures. These studies led him to discover the element hydrogen in its atomic form. An atomic hydrogen welding torch was the result of this theoretical "musing". This torch produces a flame of such high temperature that it is used for welding metals which are not affected by the oxyacetylene torch.
His studies with gases in a light bulb offered the first clear picture of thermionic emissiončthe flow of charged particles from hot metals. Langmuir was among the first to work with 'plasmas'čthe swarming aggregations of ionized gas that possess unusual electrical and magnetic properties. He actually coined the term 'plasma' to describe those gases. Langmuir's accomplishments also include the introduction of the concept of electron temperature and of course, the invention of a device to measure it, the thermionic probe.
The crowning achievement of any chemist's career must be the honor of winning a Nobel Prize. This accomplishment was realized by Irving Langmuir in 1932. Langmuir was fascinated with surface chemistry and it was for his efforts in this area that he became the first non-academic chemist to receive the Nobel Prize. Along with Dr. Katherine B. Blodgett, he studied thin films and how substances are adsorbed on surfaces. Through their efforts, surface chemistry became a full-fledged scientific discipline. In addition to their interest in these surfaces, they also wanted to know more about interfaces, where phases come together. The studies led to clarification of the true nature of surface adsorption and established the existence of monolayers. Monolayers are surface films a single atom or molecule thick which have peculiar, two-dimensional qualities. Thin layers on surfaces such as living membranes are important in the action of enzymes, toxins, antitoxins and other biological substances. Again turning to the practical, this discovery led to the possibility of measuring molecular sizes of viruses and toxins, a significant step forward in the eyes of biologists. Langmuir developed experimental techniques for the study of proteins. The studies on monolayers also led to the development of almost perfectly transparent glass, made by placing a thin film of a flourine compound on the surface.
Langmuir contributed to the technology employed in the winning of both World Wars. During World War I, the government enlisted his help in the development of submarine detection devices, and his work in this area later led to peace-time uses. An example is his collaboration with Leopold Stowkowski on the improvement of the quality of sound recordings.
Following World War I , from 1919 to 1921, his interest turned to an examination of atomic theory, and he published his "concentric theory of atomic structure" . In it he proposed that all atoms try to complete an outer electron shell of eight electrons. The inert gases already possessed this complete shell, and so were chemically unreactive. The greater tendency an atom has to complete the outer shell, the greater its chemical activity. He proposed that chemical activity was based on the number and position of electrons in the atom. If the atom in question shared electrons to complete its shell, it formed a "non-polar union"(which he called a covalent bond), while an atom that accepted or gave up electrons to accomplish this purpose formed what Langmuir called a "polar union" ( now called an ionic bond). He defined and explained the term "valence". As part of his description of the atom, he also explained the terms isoelectronic, isomers, and isobars. Few textbooks recognize the influence that Langmuir had on the development of our understanding of the nature of the atom.
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.
A colleague of Langmuir once described him in the following way: "Langmuir is the nearest thing to a thinking machine that I know - you put in the facts and out roll the conclusions." Evaluations of this type led many to consider Langmuir a non-social individual full of personal conceit. Others, though, saw him as a person with an active mind and physical energy that left him little time for small talk. His social contacts were with family and friends. He was much in demand on the lecture circuit, apparently enjoying the opportunity to express his views on many topics such as the philosophy of science and the interrelationship of science and social and political problems including, for instance, atomic energy controls.
Throughout his long and active life his interest in nature led him to enjoy vigorous outdoor activities. He climbed the Matterhorn, explored the Adirondacks, flew airplanes, skied, skated, and once walked 52 miles in one day. He was rewarded for his many efforts and interests by numerous awards. He received 15 honorary degrees and 22 medals. He was president of the American Chemical Society in 1929 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1943. Mount Langmuir, in Alaska, is named for him as is the Irving Langmuir College of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Irving Langmuir remained active and productive until well into his 70's. He spent his later years traveling all over the world with his wife. He died in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1957. His life was a model for the philosophy by which he lived : that there is a usefulness in whatever we learn.
E. Hoover, "Schaefer Performs Cloud Seeding By Using Dry Ice", in F.N. Magill, ed., Great Events From History II: Science and Technology Series, Vol. 3, Salem Press, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991, pp. 1276-1281.
W.B. Jensen, "Abegg, Lewis, Langmuir, and the Octet Rule", Journal of Chemical Education, 1984, 61, pp. 191-200.
C. Purcell , "Langmuir" in Joachim and Lowie, eds., The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 6, McGraw-Hill, New York, New York, 1973, pp. 327-328.
A. Rosenfeld, "Langmuir", in J.A. Garraty, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 6, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, New York, 1980, pp. 363-365.
C. Susskind, "Irving Langmuir", in C.C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 8, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, New York, 1973, pp. 22-25.
Unattributed,"Irving Langmuir", in D. Abbott, ed., The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists:Chemists, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, New York, pp. 79-80.
Unattributed,"Irving Langmuir", in A.G. Debus, ed., Who's Who In Science, A.N. Marquis Co., Chicago, Illinois, 1968, p. 997.
Unattributed "Irving Langmuir", in T. Wasson, ed., Nobel Prize Winners, The H.W. Wilson company, New York, New York, 1987, pp.597-599.