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British Industrial History

William Henry Perkin

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William Henry Perkin FRS (March 12, 1838 – July 14, 1907) was an English chemist best known for his discovery, at the age of 18, of the first aniline dye, mauveine.

1838 William Henry Perkin was born in East End of London, the youngest of seven children. His father was a successful carpenter. His mother, Sarah, was of Scottish descent but moved to East London as a child.

He attended the City of London School where he was taught by Thomas Hall who fostered his scientific talent and encouraged him to pursue a chemical career.

In 1853, at the age of 15, Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London (now part of Imperial College London), where he began his studies under the illustrious August Wilhelm von Hofmann. At this time, chemistry was still in a quite primitive state. Although atomic theory was accepted, the major elements discovered, and techniques to analyze 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 synthesize quinine, an expensive natural product in much demand for the treatment of malaria. Perkin, who had by then become one of Hofmann's assistants, embarked on a series of experiments to try to achieve this end.

During the Easter break in 1856, when Hofmann had returned for a visit to his native Germany, Perkin tried some further experiments in his 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 discovery, that aniline could be partly transformed into a crude mixture that when extracted with alcohol gave an intense purple colour. Perkin, who had an interest in painting and photography, immediately became interested in the result, and carried out further trials with his friend Arthur Church and his brother Thomas. Since this was off the track of the quinine work he had been assigned, they carried out the experiments in a hut in Perkin's garden, in secret from Hofmann.

They satisfied themselves that they might be able to scale up the discovery and commercialize it as a dye, which they called mauveine. Their initial experiments indicated that it dyed silk in a way that was stable against washing and 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.

1856 Perkin filed for a patent in August, 1856, while he was still only 18. At the time, all dyes in use for colouring cloth were extracts of natural products, and many of them were expensive and labour-intensive to produce. Many were especially wanting in terms of stability, or fastness. The colour purple, which had been used since ancient times as a mark of aristocracy and prestige, was especially expensive and difficult (known as Tyrian purple), it came from the glandular mucus of certain molluscs. The process to produce it was variable and complicated, so Perkin and his brother understood that they were onto a possible substitute that could be made into a commercial success.

Inventing the dye was one thing, raising the capital, manufacturing it in quantity cheaply, adapting it to cotton, getting acceptance from commercial dyers, and creating demand for it in the public was something else. Perkin was active in all of these areas. In a whirlwind of activity, he got his father to put up the capital, his brothers to partner in the creation of a factory, he invented a mordant for cotton, became a one man technical service operation, and publicized it in the marketplace. He was helped in the latter by the adoption of a similar colour in France by Napoleon's Empress Eugenie and Queen Victoria, and by the adoption of the fabric-hungry crinoline, or hooped-skirt. Everything seemed to "fall into place" through hard work and a little luck too. He became rich.

After Perkin's discovery, innumerable new aniline dyes appeared (some discovered by Perkin himself), and the factories required to produce them were constructed all across Europe, launching what amounted to an international trade war in fabrics and dyes.

William Perkin continued active research in organic chemistry for the rest of his life. He discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes including Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green. He later found syntheses for coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfumes, and cinnamic acid, this latter preparation becoming known as the Perkin reaction. Local lore has it that the colour of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity of Perkin's dye works.

In 1869, Perkin found a method to commercially produce alizarin, a brilliant red dye then produced from the madder plant, from anthracene, but the German chemical company BASF patented the same process one day before he did. Over the next few years, Perkin found his research and development efforts increasingly eclipsed by the German chemical industry, and in 1874, he sold his factory and retired from business, already a very wealthy man.

1883 - 1885 President of the Chemical Society. [1]

Perkin received many honors in his lifetime. In 1879, he received the Royal Society's Royal Medal, and then, in 1889, its Davy Medal. The Perkin Medal was established in 1906 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of mauveine. Today it is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry and has been awarded annually by the American section of the Society of Chemical Industry to many inspiring and gifted chemists.

He died in 1907 of pneumonia and appendicitis.


Obituary 1907 [2]

The founder of the coal tar colour industry, . . . [much more]



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Sources of Information

  • [1] Wikipedia
  1. http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/History/rscpresidents/1841to1897.asp
  2. The Engineer 19th July 1907