Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica
Helvetica was developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei (Haas type foundry) of Münchenstein, Switzerland. Haas set out to design a new sans-serif typeface that could compete with the successful Akzidenz-Grotesk in the Swiss market. Originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, its design was based on Schelter-Grotesk and Haas’ Normal Grotesk. The aim of the new design was to create a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage.
When Linotype adopted Neue Haas Grotesk (which was never planned to be a full range of mechanical and hot-metal typefaces) its design was reworked. After the success of Univers, Arthur Ritzel of Stempel redesigned Neue Haas Grotesk into a larger family
In 1960, the typeface’s name was changed by Haas’ German parent company Stempel to Helvetica (derived from Confoederatio Helvetica, the Latin name for Switzerland) in order to make it more marketable internationally. It was initially suggested that the type be called ‘Helvetia’ which is the original Latin name for Switzerland. This was ignored by Eduard Hoffmann as he decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to name a type after a country. He then decided on ‘Helvetica’ as this meant ‘Swiss’ as opposed to ‘Switzerland’.