Annals of Science 66 (2):157-182 (2009)

Apart from hydrogen, helium is the most abundant chemical element in the universe, and yet it was only discovered on the Earth in 1895. Its early history is unique because it encompasses astronomy as well as chemistry, two sciences which the spectroscope brought into contact during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the modest form of a yellow spectral line known as D3, ‘helium’ was sometimes supposed to exist in the Sun's atmosphere, an idea which is traditionally ascribed to J. Norman Lockyer. Did Lockyer discover helium as a solar element? How was the suggestion received by chemists, physicists and astronomers in the period until the spring of 1895, when William Ramsay serendipitously found the gas in uranium minerals? The hypothetical element helium was fairly well known, yet Ramsay's discovery owed little or nothing to Lockyer's solar element. Indeed, for a brief while it was thought that the two elements might be different. The complex story of how helium became established as both a solar and terrestrial element involves precise observations as well as airy speculations. It is a story that is unique among the discovery histories of the chemical elements
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DOI 10.1080/00033790902741633
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