Digital NewsPaper

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

3 min read
william henry perkin

Sir William Henry Perkin was a British chemist and inventor best known for his discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauveine, which revolutionized the textile industry in the 19th century.

Perkin was born in London in 1838 and showed an early interest in chemistry. He began studying at the Royal College of Chemistry in London at the age of 16, where he was taught by the renowned chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. In 1856, while attempting to synthesize quinine, a compound used to treat malaria, Perkin accidentally discovered a new purple dye while working in his home laboratory. He named the dye mauveine and patented it in 1857.

The success of mauveine launched Perkin’s career as a chemist and entrepreneur. He went on to develop several other synthetic dyes and founded a company to manufacture and sell them. Perkin’s work played a key role in the development of the modern chemical industry and the synthesis of a wide range of organic compounds. He was knighted in 1906 for his contributions to chemistry and died in 1907.

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 an important cost and application. The element cadmium, for example, can be ground down to make light reds, oranges, and yellows. 

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

Who first discovered dye?

sir wiliam henry
Image Source: i.ytimg

The use of dyes to color fabrics and other materials dates back thousands of years, and various natural dyes have been used throughout history. These dyes were obtained from a wide range of sources, including plants, minerals, and insects.

One of the earliest known examples of dyeing is the use of indigo, a blue dye extracted from the indigo plant, which was used to color fabrics in ancient Egypt, India, and other parts of the world. Other natural dyes that have been used throughout history include madder, which produces a red dye, and woad, which produces a blue dye.

However, Sir William Henry Perkin is generally credited with the discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauveine, which he accidentally synthesized while attempting to synthesize quinine in 1856. This discovery revolutionized the textile industry and led to the development of a wide range of synthetic dyes that are widely used today.

Here’s what mauveine seems like in fabric:


Mauveine is a synthetic organic compound that was discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin, an English chemist. It was the first synthetic aniline dye, and it was originally used to dye textiles, such as clothes fabric and silk, in a variety of colors, including shades of purple and mauve. If you have a length of fabric and a silk skein dyed with mauveine that you have installed in a wooden frame, it sounds like you have a display or exhibit of some kind that showcases the use of this historic dye.

A length of clothes fabric and a silk skein both dyed with mauveine, were 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 colors 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 color 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 on 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.