Sir William Henry Perkin, the man who discovered synthetic dye, honoured by Google


Sir William Henry Perkin, the man who discovered synthetic dye, honoured by Google

William Henry Perkin introduced brightly coloured clothing to the masses and laid the foundation of today’s chemical and pharmaceutical industries was honoured by Google on his 180th birthday with a doodle on Monday.

He is credited with discovering synthetic dye at a young age of 18. He called the substance mauveine or purple.

However, the discovery may well be termed accidental and justifies the words of famed scientist Louis Pasteur: “Chance favours only the prepared mind.” Born on March 12, 1838, in London, Perkin was an inquisitive child but his ardour for chemistry gained momentum after he stumbled upon a deteriorating laboratory at his late grandfather’s home.

Perkin’s growing passion for chemistry and talent and devotion to the subject got him admission into the Royal College of Chemistry at a tender age of 15. German chemist August von Hofmann recognised Perkin’s ability and made him his assistant. There Perkin started experimenting in synthesising quinine used in the treatment of malaria.


Sir William Henry Perkin, the man who discovered synthetic dye, honoured by Google
Google doodle on Sir William Henry Perkin.


In 1856, Perkin carried out a series of experiments to manufacture quinine from aniline, an inexpensive and readily available coal tar waste product, working in his makeshift laboratory at his home. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to synthesise quinine but in a related reaction a mysterious dark sludge was produced. Investigating the substance further, Perkin incorporated potassium dichromate and alcohol into the aniline at different stages and chanced upon a deep purple solution.

Perkin originally named his dye Tyrian Purple, but it later became commonly known as mauve. He patented the new dye and opened a dyeworks at Greenford. Perkin could not have chosen a better time or place for his discovery.

England was then in the grip of the Industrial Revolution and coal tar — the major source of his raw material — was being produced in large quantities as a waste product. Moreover, at that time, all dyes for colouring cloth were extracts of natural products, and many of them were expensive and labour-intensive to produce.

The Perkin Medal was established in 1906 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of mauveine. Today it is acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry.

About Sir William Henry Perkin- WIKI

Sir William Henry Perkin, FRS (12 March 1838 – 14 July 1907) was a British chemist and entrepreneur best known for his accidental discovery of the first aniline dye: the purple mauveine. Though failing in trying to synthesise quinine for the treatment of malaria, he became successful in the field of dyes after his first discovery at the age of 18.

Perkin set up a factory to produce the dye industrially. Lee Blaszczyk, professor of business history at the University of Leeds, states, “By laying the foundation for the synthetic organic chemicals industry, Perkin helped to revolutionize the world of fashion.

Early years

William Perkin was born in East End of London, the youngest of the seven children of George Perkin, a successful carpenter. His mother, Sarah, was of Scottish descent, and moved to East London as a child. He was baptized in the parish church of St Paul’s, Shadwell, which had been connected to such luminaries as James Cook, Jane Randolph Jefferson (mother of Thomas Jefferson) and John Wesley.

At the age of 14, Perkin attended the City of London School, where he was taught by Thomas Hall, who fostered his scientific talent and encouraged him to pursue a career in chemistry.

Accidental discovery of mauveine

In 1853, at the precocious age of 15, Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London (now part of Imperial College London), where he began his studies under August Wilhelm von Hofmann. At this time, chemistry was still primitive: although the major elements had been discovered, and techniques to analyse the proportions of the elements in many compounds were in place, it was still a difficult proposition to determine the arrangement of the elements in compounds. Hofmann had published a hypothesis on how it might be possible to synthesise quinine, an expensive natural substance much in demand for the treatment of malaria. Having become one of Hofmann’s assistants, Perkin embarked on a series of experiments to try to achieve this end.

During the Easter vacation in 1856, while Hofmann was visiting his native Germany, Perkin performed some further experiments in the crude laboratory in his apartment on the top floor of his home in Cable Street in east London. It was here that he made his great accidental discovery: that aniline could be partly transformed into a crude mixture which, when extracted with alcohol, produced a substance with an intense purple colour.

Perkin, who had an interest in painting and photography, immediately became enthusiastic about this result and carried out further trials with his friend Arthur Church and his brother Thomas. Since these experiments were not part of the work on quinine which had been assigned to Perkin, the trio carried them out in a hut in Perkin’s garden to keep them secret from Hofmann.

They satisfied themselves that they might be able to scale up production of the purple substance and commercialise it as a dye, which they called mauveine. Their initial experiments indicated that it dyed silk in a way which was stable when washed or exposed to light. They sent some samples to a dye works in Perth, Scotland, and received a very promising reply from the general manager of the company, Robert Pullar. Perkin filed for a patent in August 1856, when he was still only 18.

At the time, all dyes used for colouring cloth were natural substances, many of which were expensive and labour-intensive to extract. Furthermore, many lacked stability, or fastness. The colour purple, which had been a mark of aristocracy and prestige since ancient times, was especially expensive and difficult to produce, as the dye used, known as Tyrian purple, was made from the glandular mucus of certain molluscs. Its extraction was variable and complicated, and so Perkin and his brother realised that they had discovered a possible substitute whose production could be commercially successful.

Perkin could not have chosen a better time or place for his discovery: England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, largely driven by advances in the production of textiles; the science of chemistry had advanced to the point where it could have a major impact on industrial processes; and coal tar, the major source of his raw material, was an abundant by-product of the process for making coal gas and coke.

Sir William Henry Perkin
Sir William Henry Perkin

Having invented the dye, Perkin was still faced with the problems of raising the capital for producing it, manufacturing it cheaply, adapting it for use in dyeing cotton, gaining acceptance for it among commercial dyers, and creating public demand for it. He was active in all of these areas: he persuaded his father to put up the capital, and his brothers to partner with him to build a factory; he invented a mordant for cotton; he gave technical advice to the dyeing industry; and he publicised his invention of the dye.

Public demand was increased when a similar colour was adopted by Queen Victoria in Britain and by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, in France, and when the crinoline or hooped-skirt, whose manufacture used a large quantity of cloth, became fashionable. Everything fell into place: with hard work and lucky timing, Perkin became rich.

After the discovery of mauveine, many new aniline dyes appeared (some discovered by Perkin himself), and factories producing them were constructed across Europe.


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