|William Henry Perkin Discovers Mauve, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2021|
The next prompt for #printersolstice is "a well-made mistake" which prompted this tale of failure and serendipity.
This handprinted lino block print ‘William Henry Perkin Discovers Mauve’
is about how the British chemist and entrepreneur made the
serendipitous discovery of the first synthetic organic dye: mauveine.
William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) was only 18 and was washing up after
trying and failing to synthesize quinine to treat malaria when he
produce a bright mauve chemical from aniline and he recognized its
potential as a dye. He set up a factory, revolutionizing fashion and
launching the synthetic organic chemicals industry. The linocuts are 8”
by 10” on ivory Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper.
Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London in 1853 when he was only 15, studying with August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Hofmann hired him as his assistant in 1855 and had Perkin working on a series of experiments to try and synthesize quinine, used to treat malaria. During his Easter break in 1856, Perkin was performing some experiments to this end, in his makeshift lab in his own apartment. Hofmann thought allyl toluidine from coal tar could be oxidised with potassium bichromate to make quinine (which we now know cannot work). Perkin tried this method and got an unpromising brown precipitate. So instead he tried the method with another coal tar product, aniline, which produced a black sludge.... but left purple stains on the lab bench when he cleaned up with alcohol. Perkin was interested in painting and photography and had already been thinking about dyestuffs with his friend Arthur Church and his brother Thomas. They did not tell Hofmann. Perkin used a purified extract of the black sludge to colour samples of silk and sent them to a Scottish textile manufacturer. The results were so promising he decided to quit college, file for a patent and set up dye factory in Greenford Green, Middlesex. They named the dye mauveine.
Hofmann opposed his plan and feared the 18 year old lacked the experience to launch this enterprise, but he managed the logistics of securing ingredients reactive vessels and suitable mordants for dying. Then he tackled marketing the product: 'Perkin's mauve'.
His timing was perfect. Purple was a challenging colour to produce with natural pigments, many of which tended to fade. Considered a sign of royalty for centuries, 'Tyrian purple' was made from glandular mucus of certain molluscs; it was expensive and complicated to produce. Aided by Napoleon III's wife, the Empress Eugénie's choice of mauve fashion, as well as Queen Victoria favouring purple dresses, Perkin's mauve, the first mass-produced synthetic dye, became all the rage. In England they joked about 'mauve measles' and 'mauve mania'. Several of Hofmann's other students discovered other colours of synthetic dyes and an industry was born. Perkin was able to sell his business and retire from manufacturing at 36!
He then focused on research in organic chemistry. He published 90 papers in the Transactions of the Chemical Society, develipped the 'Perkin synthesis’ for unsaturated organic acids, did the first synthesis of coumarin, one of the first synthetic raw materials of perfume, synthesized cinnamic acid from benzaldehyde and developped a means of commercial production from anthracene of the brilliant red dye alizarin. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1866, received its Royal Medal in 1879 and Davy Medal in 1889, and was president of the Chemical Society and the Society for Chemical Industry. He had two sons by his first marriage to Jemima Lisset in 1859 (William Henry Jr and Arthur George). He remarried Alexandrina Mollwo after her death. They had a son (Frederick Mollwo) and four daughters (Helen, Mary, Lucie and Annie). They were a family of serious musicians, who played together as a nine-piece chamber orchestra. Perkin had considered forming a professional string quarted with his brother and two sisters. His son William Perkin Jr was an excellent pianist. His son Arthur played flute with the family orchestra and later, first bassoon in a Yorkshire amateur orchestra. All three sons became chemists. William Henry Perkin was knighted in 1906, and received the first ever Perkin Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry, created on the 50th anniversary of discovery of mauveine, the year before his death.
William Henry Perkin, wikipedia, accessed February 2021
Mike Sutton, The Perkin family legacy, Chemistry World, 26 February, 2010.
The mystery of the Victorian purple dye, Research Outreach, 2020.
William Henry Perkin: how an 18-year-old accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye, Vox.com, March 18, 2018.