History of Perkin Discovery
Sir William Henry Perkin
At the time, Perkin was working as an assistant to August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry (now part of Imperial College) in trying to synthesize quinine which was an expensive natural product used for the treatment of malaria.
Perkin carried out research on coal-tar extracts at his home in East London during the Easter break and it was on 23 March 1856 that he made the discovery that aniline could be partly transformed into a crude mixture that when extracted with alcohol, gave an intense purple colour.
Bringing purple to the people
Until that time, almost all commercial dyes were natural products and expensive. The discovery of purple, the colour primarily associated with royalty because of its expense, occurred at the time of the Industrial Revolution in England which had been brought about largely by the advances in textile production. Therefore, purple became inexpensive and fashionable overnight and made Perkin a very rich man.
Perkin went on to study the ability of organic compounds to rotate polarized light and found the syntheses for coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfumes, and cinnamic acid, which became known as the Perkin Reaction.
Significance for the chemical industry
Until the discovery the organic chemical industry had been mainly confined to manufacturing soap from fats & oils so the accidental discovery of mauveine gave birth to the synthetic dyes industry, revolutionized fashion, sparked enormous interest in the commercial applications of chemistry. It was also indirectly responsible for enormous advances in medicine, perfumery, food, explosives, photography and other chemical products isolated from coal tar and the growth of industrial giants such as Bayer AG and ICI.
In 1906, Perkin was presented with the Perkin Medal by the American section of the London-based Society of Chemical Industry at a gala celebration in New York which was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the coal-tar dye industry. Fifty years after the discovery of mauveine it was estimated that the Perkin's work had led to the existence of 2,000 artificial colours.
A fun way to find out more about the discovery of the synthetic dye mauveine
European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences
Further details about the life of William H. Perkin
The Society of Dyers and Colourists
The SDC is a registered charity and its aims and objectives are 'to advance the science of colour' in the broadest sense
Society of Chemical Industry
SCI is a unique international forum where science meets business on independent, impartial ground.
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