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Helvetica is a Grotesque sans serif face, also classified as Lineal under the Vox-ATypI Classification Of Type. The strokes in Helvetica are monotone in weight and the overall forms of the typeface itself are based on Akzidenz-Grotesk from Berthold (around 1898).
In 1960, Linotype and D. Stempel AG in Frankfurt decided to take the face over and redrew it for the Linotype machine. (51% of Haas was owned by Stempel, which itself was controlled by Linotype since 1941). Haas still produced type for hand composition and larger sizes.
Stempel and Linotype were not fond of selling a typeface that was named after a "competing" company (Haas), so they wanted to rename it "Helvetia," the latin name for Switzerland. Eduard Hoffmann disliked the idea to name the typeface after a country and suggested "Helvetica": latin for "swiss".
Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, more weights were added to the ever-increasing family. In 1983, in an attempt to rein in the font's expansion, an updated version of Helvetica was designed by Linotype called Neue Helvetica (New Helvetica) that included more weights and styles, and overall made the type family more consistant. 2004 saw the release of Helvetica Linotype (renamed Helvetica World in 2006), a family of four fonts, each of which has over 1,500 glyphs—representing Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic. The Cyrillic, Greek, and Hebrew were drawn by John Hudson.
Similar to Helvetica is Arial*, originally created by Monotype for IBM. The TrueType version of Arial, installed by default on Mac and Windows based personal computers, is one of several fonts designed to be metrically compatible with Helvetica (ie. has the same character widths). Both Helvetica and Arial are widely specified on the web for screen use.
Today Helvetica is still one of the most widley used typefaces of all time; although it is loved by many, it is hated by some. There is no shortage of commentary on the typeface, and there have even been two books published by Lars Müller Publishers entitled "Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface" and "Helvetica forever" dedicated to the famous type family.
See also Helvetica Film.