Vanadium was discovered by Andrés Manuel del Río, a Spanish-Mexican mineralogist, in 1801. Del Río extracted the element from a sample of Mexican "brown lead" ore, later named vanadinite. He found that its salts exhibit a wide variety of colors, and as a result he named the element panchromium (Greek: παγχρώμιο "all colors"). Later, Del Río renamed the element erythronium (Greek: ερυθρός "red") because most of the salts turned red upon heating. In 1805, French chemist Hippolyte Victor Collet-Descotils, backed by del Río's friend Baron Alexander von Humboldt, incorrectly declared that del Río's new element was only an impure sample of chromium. Del Río accepted Collet-Descotils' statement and retracted his claim.
In 1831, Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström rediscovered the element in a new oxide he found while working with iron ores. Later that year, Friedrich Wöhler confirmed del Río's earlier work. Sefström chose a name beginning with V, which had not yet been assigned to any element. He called the element vanadium after Old Norse Vanadís (another name for the Norse Vanr goddess Freyja, whose attributes include beauty and fertility), because of the many beautifully colored chemical compounds it produces. In 1831, the geologist George William Featherstonhaugh suggested that vanadium should be renamed "rionium" after del Río, but this suggestion was not followed.
The isolation of vanadium metal was difficult. In 1831, Berzelius reported the production of the metal, but Henry Enfield Roscoe showed that Berzelius had produced the nitride, vanadium nitride (VN). Roscoe eventually produced the metal in 1867 by reduction of vanadium(II) chloride, VCl2, with hydrogen. In 1927, pure vanadium was produced by reducing vanadium pentoxide with calcium.
The first large-scale industrial use of vanadium was in the steel alloy chassis of the Ford Model T, inspired by French race cars. Vanadium steel allowed reduced weight while increasing tensile strength (ca. 1905). For the first decade of the 20th century, most vanadium ore was mined by American Vanadium Company from the Minas Ragra in Peru. Later the demand for uranium rose, leading to increased mining of that metal's ores. One major uranium ore was carnotite, which also contains vanadium. Thus, vanadium became available as a by-product of uranium production. Eventually uranium mining began to supply a large share of the demand for vanadium.
German chemist Martin Henze discovered vanadium in the hemovanadin proteins found in blood cells (or coelomic cells) of Ascidiacea (sea squirts) in 1911.