Before neodymium magnets could be made, the element neodymium had to be discovered. This discovery was made in 1885 by Carl Auer von Welsbach, who had been working for years on developing chemical separation methods to investigate rare earth elements. In 1885, Auer von Welsbach was able to separate the alloy didymium into its two parts—something that had never been done before.
By performing 167 crystallizations using a method of fractional crystallization he had personally developed, Auer von Welsbach separated didymium into two different colored salts. One was a green salt that he pronounced “praseodymium,” from the Greek work “prasinos,” which simply means “green.” The second salt was pink and had a much more creative name. Borrowing from the Greek word “neos,” for “new,” and “didymos,” for “twin,” Auer von Welsbach officially named the new element “neodidymium.” Later, this element would be renamed “neodymium,” and be used in neodymium magnets.
When Auer von Welsbach announced his discovery to the Vienna Academy of Sciences on June 18, 1885, he was not met with enthusiasm—but with skepticism. His longtime mentor Robert Bunsen (inventor of the Bunsen burner) approved of Auer von Welsbach’s discovery, but many other chemists dismissed Auer von Welsbach. Auer von Welsbach was quoted as saying, “Only Bunsen, to whom I first showed the discovery, recognized immediately that a splitting of didymium had actually been accomplished. This acknowledgment from Bunsen, who had, as is known, published very beautiful and comprehensive researches on didymium, showed how unselfishly this great investigator used to judge the researches of younger men.” (quote from “The Discovery of the Elements, Mary Elvira Weeks, 1956).
Certainly, we should all feel very grateful that Bunsen provided Auer von Welsbach support in his scientific pursuits. Otherwise, we may still be living in a world where neodymium has yet to be discovered, and we would have no neodymium magnets as a result. With no neodymium magnets, we would live in a world devoid of many of the technologies we rely on every day, like the neodymium magnets in our computers and vehicles.