Carl Auer von Welsbach enlightened the Streets of Europe


On September 1, 1858Austrian inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach was born. Von Weisbach is particularly well known for his work on rare earth elements, which led to the development of the flint used in modern lighters, the gas mantle which brought light to the streets of Europe in the late 19th century, and for the development of the metal filament light bulb.

Carl Auer von Welsbach

Carl Auer von Welsbach

Carl Auer von Welsbach joined the Austro-Hungarian Army and became Second Lieutenant. In 1878, Auer von Welsbach entered the University of Vienna and studied mathematics, general chemistry, engineering physics, and thermodynamics. In 1880, Auer switched to the University of Heidelberg where he studied chemistry. Two years later, he earned his Doctorate degree and moved back to Vienna where he started working as an unpaid assistant in Prof. Adolf Lieben’s laboratory, working with chemical separation methods for investigations on rare earth elements.

Von Welsbach was able to separate the alloy didymium into its two parts for the first time around 1885 with a self developed method. The scientist saw several different colored versions which he named “praseodymium” (green) and “neodidymium” (pink); the latter then became the more common name for the element, neodymium. He received a patent

Auer von Welsbach filed a patent on his development of the gas mantle. He named it Auerlicht and it used a chemical mixture of 60% magnesium oxide, 20% lanthanum oxide and 20% yttrium oxide which he called Actinophor. The light they produced was green-tinted. He attempted to sell the mantles but the original concept failed. Auer von Welsbach created a new mantle based on a mixture of 99% thorium dioxide and 1% cerium(IV) oxide. He developed it in collaboration with his colleague Dr. Haittinger. This time, they were much more robust and the light was much more “white”. He founded another company and the new design was sold starting from 1891. The concept was successful and the company soon sold his device across Europe. In a next step, Auer von Welsbach worked on the development of metal-filament mantles with osmium wiring. Auer von Welsbach began producing his Auer-Oslight in a new factory in 1898. The device hit the market in 1902 and it was quite successful since it lasted longer and used about half the electricity for the same amount of light.

He patented his fire striker ‘flint’ in 1903. They consisted of pyrophoric alloys, 70% cerium and 30% iron, which when scratched or struck would give off sparks. The system is today best known in cigarette lighters.Auer von Welsbach formed the Treibacher Chemische Werke GesmbH  in order to build the devices and he received the Siemens-Ring award in 1920, as his name had become a synonym for the rise of artificial lightning.

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