The use of nickel has been traced as far back as 3500 BC, but it was first isolated and classified as a chemical element in 1751 by Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who initially mistook its ore for a copper mineral. Its most important ore minerals are laterites, including limonite and garnierite, and pentlandite. Major production sites include Sudbury region in Canada, New Caledonia and Norilsk in Russia. The metal is corrosion-resistant, finding many uses in alloys, as a plating, in the manufacture of coins, magnets and common household utensils, as a catalyst for hydrogenation, and in a variety of other applications. Enzymes of certain life-forms contain nickel as an active center, which makes the metal an essential nutrient for those life forms.
Because the ores of nickel are easily mistaken for ores of silver, understanding of this metal and its use dates to relatively recent times. However, the unintentional use of nickel is ancient, and can be traced back as far as 3500 BC. Bronzes from what is now Syria had contained up to 2% nickel. Further, there are Chinese manuscripts suggesting that "white copper" (cupronickel, known as baitung) was used there between 1700 and 1400 BC. This Paktong white copper was exported to Britain as early as the 17th century, but the nickel content of this alloy was not discovered until 1822.
In medieval Germany, a red mineral was found in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) which resembled copper ore. However, when miners were unable to extract any copper from it they blamed a mischievous sprite of German mythology, Nickel (similar to Old Nick) for besetting the copper. They called this ore Kupfernickel from the German Kupfer for copper. This ore is now known to be nickeline or niccolite, a nickel arsenide. In 1751, Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt was attempting to extract copper from kupfernickel and obtained instead a white metal that he named after the spirit which had given its name to the mineral, nickel. In modern German, Kupfernickel or Kupfer-Nickel designates the alloy cupronickel.
In the United States, the term "nickel" or "nick" was originally applied to the copper-nickel Indian cent coin introduced in 1859. Later, the name designated the three-cent coin introduced in 1865, and the following year the five-cent shield nickel appropriated the designation, which has remained ever since. Coins of pure nickel were first used in 1881 in Switzerland.
After its discovery the only source for nickel was the rare Kupfernickel, but from 1824 on the nickel was obtained as byproduct of cobalt blue production. The first large scale producer of nickel was Norway, which exploited nickel rich pyrrhotite from 1848 on. The introduction of nickel in steel production in 1889 increased the demand for nickel and the nickel deposits of New Caledonia, which were discovered in 1865, provided most of the world's supply between 1875 and 1915. The discovery of the large deposits in the Sudbury Basin, Canada in 1883, in Norilsk-Talnakh, Russia in 1920 and in the Merensky Reef, South Africa in 1924 made large-scale production of nickel possible.