In 1787 Antoine Lavoisier suspected that silica might be an oxide of a fundamental chemical element, but the chemical affinity of silicon for oxygen is high enough that he had no means to reduce the oxide and isolate the element. After an attempt to isolate silicon in 1808, Sir Humphry Davy proposed the name "silicium" for silicon, from the Latin silex, silicis for flint, and adding the "-ium" ending because he believed it to be a metal. Most other languages use transliterated forms of Davy's name, sometimes adapted to local phonology (e.g. German Silizium, Turkish silisyum). A few others use instead a calque of the Latin root (e.g. Russian кремний, from кремень "flint"; Greek πυριτιο from πυρ "fire"; Finnish pii from piikivi "flint").
Gay-Lussac and Thénard are thought to have prepared impure amorphous silicon in 1811, through the heating of recently isolated potassium metal with silicon tetrafluoride, but they did not purify and characterize the product, nor identify it as a new element. Silicon was given its present name in 1817 by Scottish chemist Thomas Thomson. He retained part of Davy's name but added "-on" because he believed that silicon was a nonmetal similar to boron and carbon. In 1823, Jöns Jacob Berzelius prepared amorphous silicon using approximately the same method as Gay-Lussac (reducing potassium fluorosilicate with molten potassium metal), but purifying the product to a brown powder by repeatedly washing it. As a result, he is usually given credit for the element's discovery. The same year, Berzelius became the first to prepare silicon tetrachloride; silicon tetrafluoride had already been prepared long before in 1771 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele by dissolving silica in hydrofluoric acid.
Silicon in its more common crystalline form was not prepared until 31 years later, by Deville. By electrolyzing a mixture of sodium chloride and aluminium chloride containing approximately 10% silicon, he was able to obtain a slightly impure allotrope of silicon in 1854. Later, more cost-effective methods have been developed to isolate several allotrope forms, the most recent being silicene in 2010. Meanwhile, research on the chemistry of silicon continued; Friedrich Wöhler discovered the first volatile hydrides of silicon, synthesising trichlorosilane in 1857 and silane itself in 1858, but a detailed investigation of the silanes was only carried out in the early 20th century by Alfred Stock, despite early speculation on the matter dating as far back as the beginnings of synthetic organic chemistry in the 1830s. Similarly, the first organosilicon compound,
tetraethylsilane, was synthesised by Charles Friedel and James Crafts in 1863, but detailed characterisation of organosilicon chemistry was only done in the early 20th century by Frederic Kipping.
Starting in the 1920s, the work of William Lawrence Bragg on X-ray crystallography successfully elucidated the compositions of the silicates, which had previously been known from analytical chemistry but had not yet been understood, together with Linus Pauling's development of crystal chemistry and Victor Goldschmidt's development of geochemistry. The middle of the 20th century saw the development of the chemistry and industrial use of siloxanes and the growing use of silicone polymers, elastomers, and resins. In the late 20th century, the complexity of the crystal chemistry of silicides was mapped, along with the solid-state chemistry of doped semiconductors.
Because silicon is an important element in high-technology semiconductor devices, many places in the world bear its name. For example, Santa Clara Valley in California acquired the nickname Silicon Valley, as the element is the base material in the semiconductor industry there. Since then, many other places have been dubbed similarly, including Silicon Forest in Oregon, Silicon Hills in Austin, Texas, Silicon Slopes in Salt Lake City, Utah, Silicon Saxony in Germany, Silicon Valley in India, Silicon Border in Mexicali, Mexico, Silicon Fen in Cambridge, England, Silicon Roundabout in London, Silicon Glen in Scotland, Silicon Gorge in Bristol, England, Silicon Alley in New York, New York and Silicon Beach in Los Angeles, California.