In 1856, the precocious scientist William Henry Perkin failed in an experiment to synthetically produce quinine, a chemical that helps treat malaria. Instead of quinine, his beakers were left filled with a dirty brown sludge. But something amazing happened when Perkin, who was only 18 at the time, cleaned out those beakers with alcohol. The brown sludge became a bright purple dye. This accident was the first discovery of a synthetic dye, which Perkin named “mauveine.”
Before Perkin’s discovery, dyes and pigments had to be sourced from plants, metals, minerals, or organic materials, often at significant cost and effort. You can make indigo, a natural purple-blue dye, from a subtropical plant, but it’s a lengthy and difficult process. These natural purple dyes also faded rapidly. Mauveine was a more permanent stain. The discovery changed everything, beginning a long chain of chemistry advances that would make bright, inexpensive synthetic color available to the masses.
Today would have been Perkin’s 180th birthday. So, as fans of the colour purple, we raise a glass of Gin and Tonic to you, Mr Perkin!