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William Henry Perkin: How an 18-year-old accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye

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william henry perkin

Perkin, who would be 180 years old now, was a chemist who invented synthetic purple dye. It broke the history of costumes. In 1856, the gifted scientist William Henry Perkin failed in an experiment to synthetically manufacture quinine, a chemical that assists treat malaria. Rather of quinine, his beakers were left filled with a nasty brown mud. But something astonishing happened when Perkin, who was only 18 at the time, picked out those goblets with alcohol. 

The brown sludge grew a bright, rich fuchsia-purple dye. This disaster was the first discovery of a plastic dye, which Perkin named “mauveine.” For this performance, Google is commemorating Perkin with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 180th birthday.

Before Perkin’s invention, dyes and pigments had to be sourced from flowers, metals, minerals, or organic materials like bat guano, usually at important cost and application. The element cadmium, for example, can be ground down to make light reds, oranges, and yellows. 

Lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone, produces deep ultramarine blues. And you can obtain indigo, a natural purple-blue dye, from a subtropical bush, but it’s a long and complicated process. These natural purple dyes also faded quickly. Mauveine was a more durable brand. And the process changed everything, creating a long chain of chemistry approaches that would make a bright, cheap synthetic colour available to the blocks.

Sir William Perkin’s (1838-1907) innovative stoppered container of mauveine dye, labelled “Original Mauveine.”

Here’s what mauveine seems like in fabric:

A length of clothes fabric and a silk skein both dyed with mauveine, installed in a wooden frame.

Though Perkin was youthful, he sensed a marketing opportunity, patented the dye, and soon opened a dye-works shop in London. And by 1862, Queen Victoria herself was consuming garments dyed with mauveine.

Perkin invented other counterfeit colours as well, like Perkin’s Green (a turquoise-like hue) and a different shade of purple, Britannia Violet. He also co-discovered a method to manufacture the pigment alizarin, commonly acknowledged to painters as alizarin crimson, a blood-red staple of any colour set.

Sir William Henry Perkin died in 1907, but he is seen each year by a prestigious chemistry award that bears his name. The Perkin Medal is given to a chemist whose work has made a meaningful impact in a commercial or household application.

Winners cover Carl Djerassi, who helped create the first oral contraceptives. The most contemporary winner is Ann E. Weber, a former Merck scientist regarded for her work in pharmaceuticals.

Today, most dyes you see in clothes are synthetic, and they come in every single color possible. And all these colors that stain our T-shirts, pants, dresses, and socks can be sketched back to one misfortune in 1856.

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