Looking up at a helium balloon rising in the sky, have you ever wondered how and who discovered helium?
Helium is the second element in the periodic table, whose discovery is a seminal event in the history of science. However, what is not widely known is that this discovery was made by not one but two scientists in the same year, both of whom made their discoveries on Indian soil.
The stories of helium discovery
The Vijaydurg Fort in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra serves as a testament to this momentous occasion, as it is widely considered the birthplace of helium.
In the 19th century, a British scientist named Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer discovered the element while observing a total solar eclipse. Using a spectroscope for his observation, through spectroscopic analysis, he found a bright yellow line, which didn’t correspond to any known element. He later named it helium.
He observed the event from the vantage point of the Vijaydurg Fort and had set up a raised platform observation.
To this day, visitors to the fort can still observe the raised platform and a government board that commemorates the discovery of Helium by Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer.
The board reads that the British scientist was observing a solar eclipse from the fort on 18th August 1868 when he made the ground-breaking discovery of helium.
The other scientist credited with the discovery of helium is the French astronomer Pierre Jules Janssen, who made his discovery in Guntur, located in Andhra Pradesh today.
On 18th August 1868, Janssen also observed helium emission lines during a total solar eclipse. He identified it as the previously unknown element helium through his spectroscopic analysis.
Both scientists discovered the same element simultaneously in different parts of India. This was a testament that science knows no borders, and breakthroughs can coincide in other parts of the world.
The name ‘Helium’
Have you ever wondered why helium was named “Helium”?
The name “helium” derives from the Greek word “Helios,” which means sun, because astronomers observed it in the sun’s chromosphere.
Earth has helium too!
Though helium was discovered for the first time, it was discovered in the sun, not on Earth.
It was in 1895 that Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay discovered helium on Earth too. He discovered helium while examining the gases released while treating the mineral cleveite with acids.
Later in the same year, Swedish chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet independently confirmed Ramsay’s discovery.
Fly, Fly, Fly away!
How could helium be first discovered on the sun before being discovered on Earth?
That was because the helium atoms are so light that they aren’t strongly bound to Earth, and it escapes into space. As a result, though helium is the 2nd most abundant element in the universe, it is rare on Earth.
It is found only as a by-product of natural gas refinement on Earth.
Helium in our lives today
Today helium has been a part of our lives, from MRI’s to decorative balloons.
- MRI machines use liquid helium as a coolant
- It is used in decorative balloons, and weather balloons as it is light and inflammable.
- Also used for leak detection as it can easily penetrate through tiny openings.
And many more
The element first discovered in the sun, later as a by-product on the Earth, has become an integral part of our lives today.