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Norman Lockyer

the first to describe the existence of helium

Norman Lockyer

Norman Lockyer was born in Rugby, England, on May 17, 1836, to Joseph Hooley Lockyer, a lecturer on scientific subjects at Rugby School, and his wife Anne. He was educated at private schools in Switzerland and France, and began his working career as a clerk in the British War Office in 1857.

In 1861, Lockyer bought his first telescope, a 3.75-inch-diameter refractor made by Thomas Cooke, who encouraged his interest in astronomy. In 1862, Cooke lent him a 6.25-inch object glass to build a telescope, with which Lockyer made important observations during the next 10 years. His first observations were on the planet Mars, and he communicated them in 1863 to the Royal Astronomical Society, of which he had been elected a Fellow two years previously.

Lockyer turned his attention to the Sun after obtaining a spectroscope in 1864, and began spectroscopic observations of sunspots in 1866. In 1868 he found that solar prominences are upheavals in a layer of the Sun he named the chromosphere. He was also able to demonstrate that bright emission lines from prominences of the sun could be seen at times other than during total eclipses by using a spectoscrope. The same technique was also demonstrated, independently, by French astronomer Jules Janssen, and the French Academy of Sciences commemorated the discovery by striking a medal in honor of them both.

Lockyer had the idea for a regular journal to report the latest advances in all branches of science, and in 1869, with the support of Macmillan & Co., he founded the journal Nature, of which he served as editor for the rest of his life. The journal is still published today.

In 1870, Lockyer was appointed Secretary of the Duke of Devonshire's Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science. That same year, Lockyer suggested that the source of the strong yellow line he had first found in a solar spectrum in 1868 was due to a hypothetical element to which he gave the name "Helium," for the Greek Sun god Helios. The existence of that element was not proven, however, until William Ramsay was able to isolate it from a terrestrial source in 1895.

The final report of the Royal Commission resulted in the construction of a solar physics laboratory in Kensington, London, of which Lockyer was made Director. In 1875, the year the project came to an end, Lockyer was knighted. He was also appointed as the first professor of Astronomical Physics at the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College) by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Lockyer retired when the solar physics laboratory was relocated to Cambridge, in 1911, after which he put his energies into the establishment of the Hill Observatory at Salcombe Regis, near Sidmouth, Devon, where his wife owned land on which they had recently built a house. He died at Sidmouth on August 16, 1920, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Mary. His Hill Observatory was renamed the Norman Lockyer Observatory soon after, and is still known by that name today.

Benjamin Disraeli

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This page was last updated on 05/16/2018.