In an earlier article we discussed dyes. But for a long time, dyes like Royal Purple were extremely expensive. Did you know that dyes became affordable to many because of William Henry Perkin?
Discovery of Mauveine
In 1856, Perkin's teacher Hoffman was trying to figure out a way to synthesise the anti-malarial drug quinine from aniline. In one attempt, Perkin discovered that aniline reacted with potassium dichromate forming a black sludge at the bottom of the flask. When he tried to clean the flask out with alcohol, he found that the black sludge released a purple substance into the alcohol. He realized it could have uses as a dye, but Hoffman was not interested.
However, William, his brother Thomas and their friend Arthur Church were not discouraged and continued their experiments in secret. They found that it dyed silk in a way that did not run when washed or fade in sunlight. Perkin got a patent for it, and wrote to Robert Pullar, the manager of a dye factory in Scotland. With his help, they set up a plant to manufacture the dye on an industrial scale. In 1859, it got the name mauveine, after the mauve colour of the fabrics it dyed.
His life and career
William Henry Perkin was born in 1838 in a poor district of London, England, the seventh child of a carpenter. Nevertheless, he showed great talent, and was encouraged to take up chemistry by his schoolmaster Thomas Hall at the City of London School.
In 1853, when he was just 15, he joined the Royal College of Chemistry in London, studying under August Wilhelm von Hofmann.
When mauveine was patented, he set up a factory to manufacture it and soon became rich. However he continued his chemistry research, discovering ways to make industrially important chemicals like coumarin and cinnamic acid. Over the years he made many more dyes like Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green.
His contribution to dye chemistry happened just as the Industrial Revolution was taking place. Cotton fabric could be manufactured and dyed very cheaply, making it possible for common people to buy better and more colourful clothing. For his contribution, Perkin received the Royal Medal and the Davy Medal, and was knighted in 1906.
The Perkin Medal was created by the Society of Chemical Industry on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of mauveine. Its first recipient was William Henry Perkin himself!