Xenon was discovered in England by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay and English chemist Morris Travers in September 1898, shortly after their discovery of the elements krypton and neon. They found xenon in the residue left over from evaporating components of liquid air. Ramsay suggested the name xenon for this gas from the Greek word ξένον xénon, neuter singular form of ξένος xénos, meaning 'foreign(er)', 'strange(r)', or 'guest'. In 1902, Ramsay estimated the proportion of xenon in the Earth's atmosphere to be one part in 20 million.
During the 1930s, American engineer Harold Edgerton began exploring strobe light technology for high speed photography. This led him to the invention of the xenon flash lamp in which light is generated by passing brief electric current through a tube filled with xenon gas. In 1934, Edgerton was able to generate flashes as brief as one microsecond with this method.
In 1939, American physician Albert R. Behnke Jr. began exploring the causes of "drunkenness" in deep-sea divers. He tested the effects of varying the breathing mixtures on his subjects, and discovered that this caused the divers to perceive a change in depth. From his results, he deduced that xenon gas could serve as an anesthetic. Although Russian toxicologist
Nikolay V. Lazarev apparently studied xenon anesthesia in 1941, the first published report confirming xenon anesthesia was in 1946 by American medical researcher John H. Lawrence, who experimented on mice. Xenon was first used as a surgical anesthetic in 1951 by American anesthesiologist Stuart C. Cullen, who successfully used it with two patients.
An acrylic cube specially prepared for element collectors containing liquefied xenon
Xenon and the other noble gases were for a long time considered to be completely chemically inert and not able to form compounds. However, while teaching at the University of British Columbia, Neil Bartlett discovered that the gas platinum hexafluoride (PtF6) was a powerful oxidizing agent that could oxidize oxygen gas (O2) to form dioxygenyl hexafluoroplatinate (O+
). Since O2 and xenon have almost the same first ionization potential, Bartlett realized that platinum hexafluoride might also be able to oxidize xenon. On March 23, 1962, he mixed the two gases and produced the first known compound of a noble gas, xenon hexafluoroplatinate.
Bartlett thought its composition to be Xe+[PtF6]−, but later work revealed that it was probably a mixture of various xenon-containing salts. Since then, many other xenon compounds have been discovered, in addition to some compounds of the noble gases argon, krypton, and radon, including argon fluorohydride (HArF), krypton difluoride (KrF2), and radon fluoride. By 1971, more than 80 xenon compounds were known.
In November 1989, IBM scientists demonstrated a technology capable of manipulating individual atoms. The program, called IBM in atoms, used a scanning tunneling microscope to arrange 35 individual xenon atoms on a substrate of chilled crystal of nickel to spell out the three letter company initialism. It was the first time atoms had been precisely positioned on a flat surface.