12 July 2013

Accidental Discoveries:Mauveine

By Ginger Myrick

William Perkin was born in London, England on March 12, 1838. In the early years of his education, he exhibited a keen scientific mind and entered the Royal College of Chemistry in 1853 at the tender age of 15. Under the tutelage of a German chemist, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, Perkin began experimenting with the intent to synthesize quinine. At the time quinine was a substance in high demand for the treatment of malaria, which had become a common affliction due to European colonial expansion into tropical climes. Quinine was very expensive, and its synthesis was a pet project of von Hofmann.

During a break from classes when his mentor was visiting his homeland, Perkin took the project into his own hands in a most unofficial way. He set up a rudimentary laboratory in his apartment and began his own experiments. Unable to establish the same controlled environment of the facility at the college, his tests failed time after time. It seemed that some manner of impurity was finding its way into his solution and reacting with the aniline, a by-product of coal tar and the organic compound being used as a base for the trials. It kept producing a thick black substance, signifying that his attempts at synthesis had failed. As he swished some alcohol around the flask to clean it, Perkin noticed that the mixture yielded a deep purple color. The young man had artistic tendencies toward painting and photography, so instead of scrapping the outcome of the flubbed quinine synthesis, he clandestinely began to explore the possibilities of the resultant violet fluid.

Eventually he was convinced that the stuff could be used as a dye. During some of his very first experiments, Perkin found that this aniline purple proved more colorfast than organic substances when applied to silk. He sent out some samples to a dye man, who had spent his life in the trade, and got a very enthusiastic response. He was awarded a patent for his discovery in 1856 at just 18 years of age.

Up until Perkin stumbled upon aniline purple, or Tyrian purple as it was originally called, all cloth had been colored using natural materials. The process to extract these substances was generally costly and very involved, for purple even more so than others. The resource in demand to produce this deep hue came from a certain sea snail called Murex. In ancient times, it was gathered in large numbers, ideally at a certain time of year, and left to decompose then processed in a long and detailed manner. Tyrian purple had ever been a color associated with royalty and wealth, because it was so expensive and labor intensive to produce. By the year 1859, Perkin’s new synthetic dye, then called mauve and later renamed mauveine by chemists, revolutionized the textile industry.

Compared to the synthesis of a drug to alleviate the acute misery of malaria, the discovery of a dye might seem insignificant, but exploring alternative uses of the base compound, aniline, actually helped spur advances in the fields of chemistry and medicine. A direct result from the competition between Perkin and the German scientists at a burgeoning BASF, a subsequent dye called methylene blue was discovered and developed for use as a staining agent in laboratories. It aided in the identification of the bacteria that caused cholera and tuberculosis. The dyes, which had previously been novelties perhaps even considered to be frivolous, had now become essential to scientific research. These newfound applications furthered chemistry even more. Aniline dyes are still used in modern research labs to this very day, and all of it is owed to Perkin’s original, inadvertent discovery of mauve.

Besides, purple is such a pretty color! Mauve became quite the rage a few years later in 1862 when Queen Victoria—whose impeccable good taste dictated the direction of English fashion during her reign—wore a silk gown dyed with mauveine to an official function. This event along with all of Perkin’s hard work early on—his efforts to raise funds, build a factory, manufacture the dye, and give technical advice to others in the field—made him a very popular figure in the now booming industry of textiles. He became an even bigger influence when he devised a way to adapt the color for cotton, which in turn had a favorable effect on stimulating European economy.

Perkin continued to make an impact in other areas of chemistry that had practical applications in the ever-popular field of beauty products. He researched and developed many other dyes in various colors. He discovered a way to synthesize a sweet smelling compound called coumarin, one of the first manmade substances to be used in perfumes. The chemical process that produced the stuff was even named the Perkin reaction. And he usually found a way to manufacture his products more efficiently than similar ones and thus more economically. Soon the science he had helped to champion became too competitive for him, and in 1874 Perkin sold the factory he had built from the ground up. Needless to say, by then he was a very rich man and free to follow his own pursuits. So, he devoted the rest of his life to his true love: research.

He left pure chemistry behind and began to explore in the related field of electrochemistry, eventually moving deeper into the physical science of electromagnetism. He was equally brilliant and successful in his new area of study. Where other renowned names in the business, Gladstone and Bruhl to name two, were busy with the principles of dispersion and refraction, Perkin occupied himself with the property of chemicals to rotate a plane of polarized light, basically the precursor to of the study of molecules, which in turn paved the way for the likes of Albert Einstein.

This subject kept Perkin busy until the time of his death in 1907. By then he had amassed many awards and honors. In 1866 he was put forth as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1879, he was awarded their Royal Medal and ten years later a Davy Medal.In 1906 he was knighted and honored with the first Perkin Medal. It is the highest tribute in American industrial chemistry, originally established to celebrate his development of mauveine, the accidental discovery that started it all.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader and knitter. Along with the promotion for THE WELSH HEALER, and EL REY, she is currently crafting her third novel, which takes place during the U.S. Civil War. She is a Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core. She hopes to persevere with her newfound talent and show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.


M. Skye Seery said...

Hi Ginger,

Michelle for Hoff Productions here, a TV production company based in California.

Really enjoyed this article on the use of purple pigment throughout history! I'm currently fact-checking a documentary which features the use of purple pigment harnessed from sea snails and I'm trying to determine whether this was actually used to dye cloth purple in Victorian England before Mauveine was discovered.

Would you be willing to share any sources you have that indicate this? Really appreciate any help!

Thanks and best,

Ginger Myrick said...

Hi, Michelle!

Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, most sources indicate that full knowledge of the Murex process was lost some time after the fall of Constantinople in the mid 1400s. Modern methods, especially during Victorian times, more commonly utilized plant and insect extracts, the richer shades being still more expensive to produce due to multiple dyings or the combination of dyestuffs to yield the desired color. There is a very enlightening booklet titled 'Historic Dyes Series No.7 - Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye' by John Edmonds, who successfully approximated the ancient sea snail technique in 2003. You can learn more about him here: http://www.imperial-purple.com/profile.html

I apologize for not being of more help. Perhaps I should have worded my post more carefully. If you have any further comments or questions, please feel free to contact me here or at GingerMyrick.com. Again, thank you for your time and interest.