The history of superconductivity, the property exhibited by certain substances of lacking electrical resistance at temperatures close to absolute zero, began at the end of the 19th century and culminated in Heike Kamerlingh Onnes's 1911 discovery. The theory surrounding the property of superconductivity was further developed over the course of the 20th century.
James Dewar initiated research into electrical resistance at low-temperatures. Zygmunt Florenty Wroblewski conducted research into the electrical properties at low temperatures, though his research ended early due to his accidental death. Around 1864, Karol Olszewski and Wroblewski predicted the electrical phenomena in ultra-cold temperatures of dropping resistance levels. Olszewski and Wroblewski documented evidence of this in the 1880s.
Dewar and John Ambrose Fleming predicted that at absolute zero, pure metals would become perfect electromagnetic conductors (though, later, Dewar altered his opinion on the disappearance of resistance believing that there would always be some resistance). Walther Hermann Nernst developed the third law of thermodynamics and stated that absolute zero was unattainable. Carl von Linde and William Hampson, both commercial researchers, nearly at the same time filed for patents on the Joule-Thomson effect. Linde's patent was the climax of 20 years of systematic investigation of establish facts, using a regenerative counterflow method. Hampson's designs was also of a regenerative method. The combined process became known as the Linde-Hampson liquefaction process.
Onnes purchased a Linde machine for his research. On March 21, 1900, Nikola Tesla was granted a US patent for the means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations by lowering temperature, which was caused by lowered resistance, a phenomenon previously observed by Olszewski and Wroblewski. Within this patent it describes the increase intensity and duration of electric oscillations of a low temperature resonating circuit. It is believed that Tesla had intended that Linde's machine would be used to attain the cooling agents.
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and Jacob Clay reinvestigated Dewars's earlier experiments on the reduction of resistance at low temperatures. Onnes, with assistants at his facility, began the investigations with platinum and gold, replacing these later with mercury (a more readily refineable material). Onnes research of the resistivity of solid mercury at cryogenic temperatures was accomplished by using the Onnes own process of attaining liquid helium as a refrigerant. At the temperature of 4.19 K, he observed that the resistivity abruptly disappeared (the measuring device Onnes was using did not indicate any resistance). Onnes disclosed, in 1911, his research in a paper titled "On the Sudden Rate at Which the Resistance of Mercury Disappears". Onnes stated in that paper that the "specific resistance" becomes one thousand, thousands of times less in amount relative to the best conductor at ordinary temperature. Onnes later reversed the process and found that at 4.2 K, the resistance returned to the material. The next year, Onnes published more articles about the phenomenon. Initially, Onnes called the phenomenon "supraconductivity" (1913) and, only later, adopted the term "superconductivity". For his research, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1913.
Onnes conducted an experiment, in 1912, on the usability of superconductivity. Onnes introduced electrical oscillations into a conductive ring and removed the battery that generated electrical oscillations. Upon measuring the electrical current, Onnes found that the intensity of electrical oscillations did not diminish. This was experimental proof of Tesla's US685012 patent. The current persisted due to the superconductive state of the conductive medium. In subsequent decades, superconductivity was found in several other materials. In 1913, lead was found to superconduct at 7 K, and in 1941 niobium nitride was found to superconduct at 16 K.
The next important step in understanding superconductivity occurred in 1933, when Meissner and Ochsenfeld discovered that superconductors expelled applied magnetic fields, a phenomenon which has come to be known as the Meissner effect. In 1935, F. and H. London showed that the Meissner effect was a consequence of the minimization of the electromagnetic free energy carried by superconducting current. In 1950, the phenomenological Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity was devised by Landau and Ginzburg.
The Ginzburg-Landau theory, which combined Landau's theory of second-order phase transitions with a Schrödinger-like wave equation, had great success in explaining the macroscopic properties of superconductors. In particular, Abrikosov showed that Ginzburg-Landau theory predicts the division of superconductors into the two categories now referred to as Type I and Type II. Abrikosov and Ginzburg were awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for their work (Landau having died in 1968). Also in 1950, Maxwell and Reynolds et al. found that the critical temperature of a superconductor depends on the isotopic mass of the constituent element. This important discovery pointed to the electron-phonon interaction as the microscopic mechanism responsible for superconductivity.
The complete microscopic theory of superconductivity was finally proposed in 1957 by Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer. This BCS theory explained the superconducting current as a superfluid of Cooper pairs, pairs of electrons interacting through the exchange of phonons. For this work, the authors were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972. The BCS theory was set on a firmer footing in 1958, when Bogoliubov showed that the BCS wavefunction, which had originally been derived from a variational argument, could be obtained using a canonical transformation of the electronic Hamiltonian. In 1959, Lev Gor'kov showed that the BCS theory reduced to the Ginzburg-Landau theory close to the critical temperature. Gor'kov was the first to derive the superconducting phase evolution equation .
The Little-Parks effect was discovered in 1962 in experiments with empty and thin-walled superconducting cylinders subjected to a parallel magnetic field. The electrical resistance of such cylinders shows a periodic oscillation with the magnetic flux piercing the cylinder, the period being h/2e = 2.07×10−15 V·s. The explanation provided by Little and Parks is that the resistance oscillation reflects a more fundamental phenomenon, i.e. periodic oscillation of the superconducting critical temperature (Tc). This is the temperature at which the sample becomes superconducting. The LP effect is a result of collective quantum behavior of superconducting electrons. It reflects the general fact that it is the fluxoid rather than the flux which is quantized in superconductors. The LP effect demonstrates that vector-potential couples to an observable physical quantity, namely the superconducting critical temperature.
In the same year, Josephson made the important theoretical prediction that a supercurrent can flow between two pieces of superconductor separated by a thin layer of insulator. This phenomenon, now called the Josephson effect, is exploited by superconducting devices such as SQUIDs. It is used in the most accurate available measurements of the magnetic flux quantum h/2e, and thus (coupled with the quantum Hall resistivity) for Planck's constant h. Josephson was awarded the Nobel Prize for this work in 1973.
In 1973 Nb3Ge found to have Tc of 23 K which remained the highest ambient pressure Tc until the discovery of the cuprate high temperature superconductors in 1986 (see below).
In 1986, Bednorz and Mueller discovered superconductivity in a lanthanum-based cuprate perovskite material, which had a transition temperature of 35 K (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1987) and was the first of the high temperature superconductors. It was shortly found (by Ching-Wu Chu) that replacing the lanthanum with yttrium, i.e. making YBCO, raised the critical temperature to 92 K, which was important because liquid nitrogen could then be used as a refrigerant (at atmospheric pressure, the boiling point of nitrogen is 77 K.) This is important commercially because liquid nitrogen can be produced cheaply on-site with no raw materials, and is not prone to some of the problems (solid air plugs, etc) of helium in piping. Many other cuprate superconductors have since been discovered, and the theory of superconductivity in these materials is one of the major outstanding challenges of theoretical condensed matter physics.
In March 2001 superconductivity of Magnesium diboride (MgB2) was announced.