Irving Langmuir’s work in surface chemistry led to efficient incandescent bulbs and many other breakthroughs in early electronics.

You won’t find many chemists in Electronic Design’s Engineering Hall of Fame. But Irving Langmuir’s significance to the industry is indisputable. We wouldn’t have vacuum tubes or electric lights as we know them—and he wouldn’t have received the 1932 Nobel Prize for his pioneering theories in surface chemistry.

Langmuir worked at General Electric from 1909 to 1950. Upon his arrival there, he began to investigate the properties of adsorbed films and the nature of electric charges in high vacuum. He is credited with improving the diffusion pump, leading to his invention of the high-vacuum tube in 1912. 

Next, Langmuir and his colleague Lewi Tonks began work on perfecting a new type of electric lamp using tungsten metal wire instead of carbon filament. They found that they could improve the lamp’s lifetime and efficiency by filling the bulb with a mixture of inert gases and a coiled filament.

Many other breakthroughs followed. In 1915, he coined the term covalence to refer to the number of electron pairs an atom can share with other atoms. In 1927, he first used the word plasma to describe an ionized gas. Also in 1927, he invented the hydrogen blowtorch for welding metals at extreme high temperatures.

Langmuir also assisted the military. During World War I, he helped develop sonic submarine detection (sonar). He later redirected this work to improving the quality of phonograph recordings. In World War II, he investigated methods for de-icing aircraft and invented a machine to produce camouflage smokescreens.

In addition to the Nobel, Langmuir has been honored as the namesake of the Langmuir isotherm or adsorption equation, expressing the relationship between gas pressure at constant temperatures and the amount of adsorption on a surface. Also, Mount Langmuir in Alaska was named to recognize his passion for mountain climbing.

Langmuir even made his mark in literature, as Kurt Vonnegut based the character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker in his novel Cat’s Cradle after him. Langmuir retired from GE in 1950 and died in 1957, leaving behind three patents, many awards, better electric light, and a new look at the world from the molecular perspective.