Helium, with atomic number 2, is the second lightest element. It naturally occurs as an inert gas. Its existence was inferred from spectra of the sun in 1868 by English astronomer Norman Lockyer. Lockyer and chemist Edward Frankland named the alleged element helium, after the Greek helios, meaning the sun, and the standard elemental ending -um. The element was not actually isolated in the laboratory until 1895, by British chemist William Ramsay.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is by William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin in 1872 in the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science:
Frankland and Lockyer find the yellow prominences to give a very decided bright line not far from D, but hitherto not identified with any terrestrial flame. It seems to indicate a new substance, which they propose to call Helium.
The chemical symbol for helium is He, taken from the first two letters of the name.1
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton