The man who discovered helium

The story of Norman Lockyer, an amateur astronomer who discovered the first and only element to be identified outside Earth and went on to become a scientific star.

A budding linguist

Born in 1836 in Rugby, England, Norman Lockyer was the only son of a surgeon-apothecary. His first love was languages, travelling the continent to study French and German.

Studio photograph portrait of Professor J. Norman Lockyer (1880/1889) by WaleryScience Museum

clerk with his head in the stars

He became a civil servant in the British war office, but soon dreamt of a life in astronomy...

After marrying Winifred James in 1858, Lockyer settled in Wimbledon, London, where he installed a six-and-a-quarter-inch telescope in his garden.

In 1865 he began looking at sunspots with a spectroscope—an instrument that uses prisms to split light into its constituent frequencies.

Colour lithograph comparing the spectra of elements (1878) by Norman LockyerScience Museum

Studying light this way was a new technique in the 1860s. As chemical elements burn, they emit light with a unique spectrum of colour, like a multicoloured barcode.

Lockyer spectroscope Lockyer spectroscopeScience Museum

On 20 October 1868 Lockyer peered down his garden telescope through this seven-prism spectroscope, now on display at the Science Museum in London. His weary eye barely believed what he saw…

LIFE Photo Collection

Lockyer observed a rogue yellow line in a spectrum of light from the sun, quickly realising it might be a new element. He then called his wife, Winifred, to confirm his observation.

Winifred LockyerScience Museum

Winifred Lockyer was an active member of the Victorian scientific world, translating popular science books from French to English. She accompanied her husband on an 1870 solar eclipse expedition to Sicily.

Myt. Clas. Helios. Sun GodLIFE Photo Collection

Lockyer named the element helium, after the Greek sun god Helios.

He shared the credit for the discovery with French astronomer Jules Janssen, who independently observed the new element on an expedition to India.

In 1869 Lockyer was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

As if that wasn't enough, he also founded the influential scientific journal Nature that year.

Norman Lockyer's observatoryScience Museum

Some years later, he built this observatory adjoining his house in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent.

Here, he made observations that laid the foundations for his his book, The Sun's Place in Nature.

On his retirement to Sidmouth, Devon, Lockyer secured support for the construction of another facility—the Hill Observatory—in 1912, renamed the Norman Lockyer Observatory after death in 1920.

Above It All (1990)LIFE Photo Collection

Lockyer was one of the first people to identify a link between the sun's activity and weather patterns on Earth.

The Science Museum, LondonScience Museum

He was also instrumental in campaigning for the founding of the Science Museum, London.

Norman Lockyer's seven-prism spectroscopeScience Museum

You can see Lockyer's spectroscope in the Science Museum's exhibition, The Sun: Living With Our Star, alongside striking interactive experiences, artefacts and imagery, for a new perspective on humanity's relationship with our closest star.

Curator Harry Cliff on Lockyer's spectroscopeScience Museum

Hear from Science Museum curator Dr Harry Cliff on Lockyer's spectroscope.

Credits: Story

Visit the exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star until 6 May 2019 and see Lockyer's spectroscope alongside a host of amazing artefacts, interactive experiences and images, for a new perspective on our relationship with Earth's closest star.

Find out about the exhibition

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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