The idea of a body so massive that even light could not escape was briefly proposed by astronomical pioneer and English clergyman John Michell in a letter published in November 1784. Michell's simplistic calculations assumed that such a body might have the same density as the Sun, and concluded that such a body would form when a star's diameter exceeds the Sun's by a factor of 500, and the surface escape velocity exceeds the usual speed of light. Michell correctly noted that such supermassive but non-radiating bodies might be detectable through their gravitational effects on nearby visible bodies. Scholars of the time were initially excited by the proposal that giant but invisible stars might be hiding in plain view, but enthusiasm dampened when the wavelike nature of light became apparent in the early nineteenth century.
If light were a wave rather than a "corpuscle", it is unclear what, if any, influence gravity would have on escaping light waves. Modern relativity discredits Michell's notion of a light ray shooting directly from the surface of a supermassive star, being slowed down by the star's gravity, stopping, and then free-falling back to the star's surface.
In 1915, Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity, having earlier shown that gravity does influence light's motion. Only a few months later, Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to the Einstein field equations, which describes the gravitational field of a point mass and a spherical mass. A few months after Schwarzschild, Johannes Droste, a student of Hendrik Lorentz, independently gave the same solution for the point mass and wrote more extensively about its properties. This solution had a peculiar behaviour at what is now called the Schwarzschild radius, where it became singular, meaning that some of the terms in the Einstein equations became infinite. The nature of this surface was not quite understood at the time. In 1924, Arthur Eddington showed that the singularity disappeared after a change of coordinates (see Eddington–Finkelstein coordinates), although it took until 1933 for Georges Lemaître to realize that this meant the singularity at the Schwarzschild radius was a non-physical coordinate singularity. Arthur Eddington did however comment on the possibility of a star with mass compressed to the Schwarzschild radius in a 1926 book, noting that Einstein's theory allows us to rule out overly large densities for visible stars like Betelgeuse because "a star of 250 million km radius could not possibly have so high a density as the sun. Firstly, the force of gravitation would be so great that light would be unable to escape from it, the rays falling back to the star like a stone to the earth. Secondly, the red shift of the spectral lines would be so great that the spectrum would be shifted out of existence. Thirdly, the mass would produce so much curvature of the space-time metric that space would close up around the star, leaving us outside (i.e., nowhere)."
In 1931, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated, using special relativity, that a non-rotating body of electron-degenerate matter above a certain limiting mass (now called the Chandrasekhar limit at 1.4 M☉) has no stable solutions. His arguments were opposed by many of his contemporaries like Eddington and Lev Landau, who argued that some yet unknown mechanism would stop the collapse. They were partly correct: a white dwarf slightly more massive than the Chandrasekhar limit will collapse into a neutron star, which is itself stable. But in 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and others predicted that neutron stars above another limit (the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit) would collapse further for the reasons presented by Chandrasekhar, and concluded that no law of physics was likely to intervene and stop at least some stars from collapsing to black holes. Their original calculations, based on the Pauli exclusion principle, gave it as 0.7 M☉; subsequent consideration of strong force-mediated neutron-neutron repulsion raised the estimate to approximately 1.5 M☉ to 3.0 M☉. Observations of the neutron star merger GW170817, which is thought to have generated a black hole shortly afterward, have refined the TOV limit estimate to ~2.17 M☉.
Oppenheimer and his co-authors interpreted the singularity at the boundary of the Schwarzschild radius as indicating that this was the boundary of a bubble in which time stopped. This is a valid point of view for external observers, but not for infalling observers. Because of this property, the collapsed stars were called "frozen stars", because an outside observer would see the surface of the star frozen in time at the instant where its collapse takes it to the Schwarzschild radius.
In 1958, David Finkelstein identified the Schwarzschild surface as an event horizon, "a perfect unidirectional membrane: causal influences can cross it in only one direction". This did not strictly contradict Oppenheimer's results, but extended them to include the point of view of infalling observers. Finkelstein's solution extended the Schwarzschild solution for the future of observers falling into a black hole. A complete extension had already been found by Martin Kruskal, who was urged to publish it.
These results came at the beginning of the golden age of general relativity, which was marked by general relativity and black holes becoming mainstream subjects of research. This process was helped by the discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, which, by 1969, were shown to be rapidly rotating neutron stars. Until that time, neutron stars, like black holes, were regarded as just theoretical curiosities; but the discovery of pulsars showed their physical relevance and spurred a further interest in all types of compact objects that might be formed by gravitational collapse.
In this period more general black hole solutions were found. In 1963, Roy Kerr found the exact solution for a rotating black hole. Two years later, Ezra Newman found the axisymmetric solution for a black hole that is both rotating and electrically charged. Through the work of Werner Israel, Brandon Carter, and David Robinson the no-hair theorem emerged, stating that a stationary black hole solution is completely described by the three parameters of the Kerr–Newman metric: mass, angular momentum, and electric charge.
At first, it was suspected that the strange features of the black hole solutions were pathological artifacts from the symmetry conditions imposed, and that the singularities would not appear in generic situations. This view was held in particular by Vladimir Belinsky, Isaak Khalatnikov, and Evgeny Lifshitz, who tried to prove that no singularities appear in generic solutions. However, in the late 1960s Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking used global techniques to prove that singularities appear generically.
Work by James Bardeen, Jacob Bekenstein, Carter, and Hawking in the early 1970s led to the formulation of black hole thermodynamics. These laws describe the behaviour of a black hole in close analogy to the laws of thermodynamics by relating mass to energy, area to entropy, and surface gravity to temperature. The analogy was completed when Hawking, in 1974, showed that quantum field theory predicts that black holes should radiate like a black body with a temperature proportional to the surface gravity of the black hole.
John Michell used the term "dark star", and in the early 20th century, physicists used the term "gravitationally collapsed object". Science writer Marcia Bartusiak traces the term "black hole" to physicist Robert H. Dicke, who in the early 1960s reportedly compared the phenomenon to the Black Hole of Calcutta, notorious as a prison where people entered but never left alive.
The term "black hole" was used in print by Life and Science News magazines in 1963, and by science journalist Ann Ewing in her article "'Black Holes' in Space", dated 18 January 1964, which was a report on a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Cleveland, Ohio.
In December 1967, a student reportedly suggested the phrase "black hole" at a lecture by John Wheeler; Wheeler adopted the term for its brevity and "advertising value", and it quickly caught on, leading some to credit Wheeler with coining the phrase.