Eighteen-year-old develops first chemical dye

Sir William Perkin (London, March 12, 1838 – Sudbury, Middlesex, July 14, 1907)

Before William Perkin came on the scene, colors only came from nature, from stones, plants or animals. The dyes were scarce, expensive and not washable; only rich people could afford colors.

William Perkin was only eighteen years old on that memorable day in 1856, but he had already been a student at London's Royal College for three years, the youngest student the university had ever known.

His chemistry professor had been looking for a chemical way to mimic quinine for years. Quinine came from the bark of a rare tree and was scarce.

It was the only remedy for malaria, a disease that killed both New York and Western Europe 150 years ago.

Perkin had set up a shabby amateur laboratory in an attic at home. The room had no running water or heating and had an old-fashioned spirit lamp for lighting. Not the space to perform a miracle.

When one evening in 1856 one of his quinine experiments failed again, a reddish powder remained. Perkin's curiosity was aroused and he repeated the test in combination with aniline, a newly discovered substance derived from coal tar. In this way he obtained a perfectly black product.

He dried it, purified it and after diluting it with wine spirits it gave a mauve substance.

Old Perkin would later be very casual about his discovery, as if he had made it casually. Nevertheless, as a young man he had conducted a rather complicated experiment.

Even more original, he drenched a strip of silk with the brilliant color, gave it a thorough wash, and found that the silk retained its color.

The liquid aniline he needed was still rare; the young man had never set foot in a factory and he knew nothing about dyeing textiles. Nevertheless, he conceived the plan to produce the substance industrially. His professor was disgusted by the idea.

How could a promising chemist drop out of college to pursue the vulgar pursuits of a manufacturer? The biggest obstacle was that Perkin didn't have a penny.

His father had money, but he was not exceptionally wealthy. He turned out to be willing to put his last savings into his son's crazy idea.

Father Perkin built a number of small buildings and Willliam put together the kettles and chemical instruments. "It's a miracle," experts said, "that young Perkin didn't blow up with his whole factory."

At the end of 1857, the first liters of his 'mauve', a French word for the Dutch 'malve', the mallow plant, which has the same color, were ready. Nothing happened at all for the first few months. The Perkins thought their doom was near.

One day, the French Empress Eugénie, the fashion figurehead of those days, thought the color went well with her eyes. All Paris was surprised to see her dazzling new mauve clothes.

Queen Victoria did not want to be inferior to this and wore mauve at her daughter's wedding in 1858.

And then the gate was off the dam. 'Walking around London today', wrote one visitor, 'you start to think there's something wrong with your eyes. It seems like the whole world has gone mauve.'

Because the color was chemically formulated and Perkin immediately took out a patent, only he could supply the fabric without restriction. At 21 he was very rich. A few years later he built a large house in the countryside; he sold his company and retired, so to speak.

The modest Perkin faded into obscurity, devoting his life to chemical experiments and devoting himself to godly works.

In 1906, a year before his death, British chemists celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of 'mauve'. To their astonishment, Perkin turned out to be alive. For a moment he was put on stage and honored as the founder of the chemical industry.

Old Perkin was amazed that he liked it too. At that time, the world already had two thousand chemical colours. Unfortunately for the British, they had all been conjured up by Germans – Bayer, BASF, AGFA and Hoechst.

It was also a German who invented chemotherapy around that time with the help of Perkin's invention.

(See also: Chemotherapy)