Because very few minerals contain it in high concentration, germanium was discovered comparatively late in the history of chemistry. Germanium ranks near fiftieth in relative abundance of the elements in the Earth's crust. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev predicted its existence and some of its properties based on its position on his periodic table and called the element ekasilicon. Nearly two decades later, in 1886, Clemens Winkler found the new element along with silver and sulfur, in a rare mineral called argyrodite. Although the new element somewhat resembled arsenic and antimony in appearance, its combining ratios in the new element's compounds agreed with Mendeleev's predictions for a predicted relative of silicon. Winkler named the element after his country, Germany. Today, germanium is mined primarily from sphalerite (the primary ore of zinc), though germanium is also recovered commercially from silver, lead, and copper ores.
Germanium "metal" (isolated germanium) is used as semiconductor in transistors and various other electronic devices. Historically the first decade of semiconductor electronics were entirely based on germanium, although its production for such use today is a small fraction (2%) of that of ultra-high purity silicon, which has largely replaced it. Germanium's major end uses in the present are fiber-optic systems and infrared optics. It is used in solar cell applications. Germanium compounds are used for polymerization catalysts. Germanium is finding a new use in nanowires. Germanium forms a large number of organometallic compounds, such as tetraethylgermane, which are useful in chemistry.
Germanium is not thought to be an essential element for any living organism. Some complexed organic germanium compounds are being investigated as possible pharmaceuticals but none has had success. Similar to silicon and aluminum, natural germanium compounds, which tend to be insoluble in water, have little oral toxicity. However, synthetic soluble germanium salts are nephrotoxic, and synthetic chemically reactive germanium compounds with halogens and hydrogen are irritants and toxins.