sir william perkin

British chemist and entrepreneur, Sir William Perkin (1838-1907), transformed the fashion industry and defined his career with his accidental discovery of the first synthetic organic dye, mauveine at the age of 18.

Raised in Shadwell in East London, and the youngest of seven siblings, he entered the Royal College of Chemistry at the age of 15 where he studied under the great German scientist August Wilhelm von Hofmann.

 The Royal College of Chemistry

The Royal College of ChemistrySource: Wellcome Collection gallery

At the age of 18, he was assigned a homework project to conduct over the Easter break, in which he was tasked with finding a cheap way to produce quinine. Quinine is used to treat malaria and, at the time, had to be extracted from the bark of exotic trees rendering it expensive to produce.

Perkin turned his attention to coal tar as he believed it to be similar in structure to quinine. In finishing his experiment, he found he was left with a dark substance, as opposed to colourless quinine. In trying to clean out his flask with alcohol, he found a purple residue deposit. The vivid residue transferred onto a cloth dying it a bright purple, which remained on the cloth after it was washed. Although he had failed to synthesize quinine, Sir William Perkin had fortuitously stumbled upon the first synthetic dye and had begun his journey to become one of the founders of the modern chemical industry.

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Against the advice of Hofmann, Perkin commercialized the discovery and developed the production process for mauveine, inventing a method for the dye to be used on cotton in addition to silk, and giving advice to the dyeing industry on how this new synthetic dye worked. He opened his own factory in 1857 and He later ‘retired’ from industry to focus on 'pure science’ at the age of 36, having achieved international acclaim.

 Colour dyes in fabric manufacturing

Colour dyes in fabric manufacturing. Source: BalLi8Tic 

The discovery revolutionised colour chemistry and helped to establish the modern chemical industry. Other companies founded shortly after his discovery adopted Perkin’s innovative methods of chemical synthesis on a large scale.

The discovery also had a huge impact on the textiles and clothing industry. Until then, clothing had been largely made up of beige and brown fabrics. After Perkin’s discovery, many new aniline dyes were developed, and factories producing them were constructed across Europe. German and British dye manufacturers were keen to unearth more colours, which pushed them to advance chemical knowledge, which also linked closely to developments in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

 Fabric and textile industry

Fabric and textile industry. Source: Mikhail Gnatkovskiy

In 1906 the Society of Chemical Industry created the Perkin Medal to commemorate the discovery of mauve and awarded the first medal to its namesake at a banquet in his honour. It remains the highest honour given for outstanding applied chemistry in the US.

 Perkin Medal

Perkin Medal. Source:  Science History Institute, Conrad Erb