Today in Science History – January 18 – Edward Frankland and the Discovery of Helium

Edward Frankland
Edward Frankland (1825 – 1899)

January 18 is Edward Frankland’s birthday. Frankland was an English chemist who pioneered the idea of valency. He theorized an element could combine with a limited selection of other elements and established the field of structural chemistry.

Frankland had a large part in cleaning up the Thames river and improving the quality of London’s drinking water. In the mid-1800s, the Thames river was basically an open sewer. Factories, mills, and people were pouring their waste straight into the river. In 1868, Frankland was given a laboratory by the government to investigate how to clean up London’s waters. Over the next six years, his laboratory produced data and solutions that completely turned the situation around. London’s water supply was drinkable again.

Frankland is best known for discovering the only element to be discovered outside of Earth before it was discovered terrestrially. In 1868, he and Joseph Lockyer were investigating the spectrum given off by the Sun when they found a series of lines which did not correspond to any known element. They named their discovery “helium” after Helios, the Greek Titan of the Sun. Their discovery coincided with French astronomer Pierre Janssen solar eclipse discovery of helium.

Helium is the second most common element in the universe but it was only found in the spectra of stars and nebulae. No one had found any on Earth. It would take another 30 years before helium was finally detected in an ore of uranium by Swedish chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Langlet. Since then, we’ve found helium in a variety of places, most notably around natural gas deposits. We also know helium nuclei are produced in the form of alpha particle radiation.

Notable Science History Events for January 18

1995 – Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt died.

Adolf Butenandt
Adolf Butenandt (1903 – 1995)
Nobel Foundation

Butenandt was a German biochemist who was awarded half the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research of sex hormones. He discovered the hormone estrone from the secretions from ovaries responsible for the sexual development of females. He was also the first to isolate the male hormone androsterone. The Nazi government forced Butenandt to refuse his Nobel Prize, but he would eventually receive his award after the end of the War.

1921 – Yoichiro Nambu was born.

Nambu was a Japanese physicist who was awarded half the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on spontaneous broken symmetry in particle physics. Early particle physics believed symmetry was inherent in the system. Every particle had an opposite or ‘anti’ version, every left had a right. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be true and these violations could not be explained away. Nambu formulated a mathematical model that allowed for symmetry breaking and helped form a basis to better understand the subatomic world.

1908 – Herman Snellen died.

Herman Snellen
Herman Snellen (1834 – 1908)

Snellen was a Dutch ophthalmologist who created the standard eye chart still in use today to determine visual acuity. These charts are comprised of 10 letters that start with large type at the top which gets progressively smaller towards the bottom.

1878 – Antoine-César Becquerel died.

Antoine César Becquerel
Antoine César Becquerel (1788 – 1878)

Becquerel was a French scientist whose research into electrochemistry lead him to discover electrolysis, a method to separate metals from ore. He also invented a constant current electrochemical cell. He was the grandfather of Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of radiation.

1825 – Edward Frankland was born.