William Perkin

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

Early Years

William Henry Perkin was born in the East Side of London, England, the last 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 was baptised in the parish church of St. Paul's, which had been connected to such luminaries as James Cook, Jane Randolf (mother of Thomas Jefferson) and John Wesley. He attended a private school on Commercial Road, and was a gifted student.

He was educated at the City of London School before studying at the Royal College of Chemistry (now part of Imperial College, London), where he was appointed Honorary Assistant to August Wilhelm von Hofmann. He conducted much of his early research in a laboratory at his home where, during his Easter vacation in 1856, he attempted to synthesise quinine, based on a suggestion from von Hofmann that this anti-malaria drug might be synthesizable from coal tar. In the course of this research, he instead obtained aniline purple, a dark precipitate which was found to easily dye materials. Named mauveine, this was the first synthetic dye.

Against the wishes of von Hofmann, he patented mauveine and left school to set up a dyeworks in West London to mass produce his discovery. This venture was hugely successful, and over the next several years, Perkin discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes including Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green. Local lore has it that the color of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity of Perkin's dyeworks. 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.

William Perkin continued active research in organic chemistry for the rest of his life. He later found syntheses for coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfumes, and cinnamic acid, this latter preparation becoming known as the Perkin reaction. He died in 1907.de:William Henry Perkin ja:ウィリアム・パーキン

To be merged:

The Discovery

In 1853, at the precocious age of of 15, Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London, where he began his studies under the illustrious August Wilhelm von Hoffmann. 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. Hoffmann had published a theory 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 Hoffmann's assistants, embarked on a series of experiments to try to achieve this end. During the Easter break, when Hoffmann 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 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 color. 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 Hoffmann.

They satisfied themselves that they might be able to scale up the discovery and commercialize it as a dye. 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. Perkin filed for a patent in August, 1856, while he was still only 18. At the time, all dyes in use for coloring cloth were extracts of natural products, and many of them were expensive and labor intensive to produce. Many were especially wanting in terms of stability, or fastness. The color purple, which had been used since ancient times as a mark of aristocracy and prestige, was especially expensive and difficult--it came from 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.

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. And the science of chemistry had advanced to the point that it could have a major impact on industrial processes. And coal tar, the major source of his raw material was being produced in abundance as a waste product of the production of coal gas and coke.

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 tech-service operation, and publicized it in the marketplace. He was helped in the latter by the adoption of a similar color in France by Napoleon's Princess Eugnie 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.

The true significance of Perkin's work was that it pointed the way for other chemists to become wealthy too. They realized that if an 18 year old could do it, they could too. Innumerable new analine dyes and other variations on the theme appeared, and their associated factories were constructed all across Europe.


Garfield, Simon, (2000) Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color and Changed the World ISBN 0393020053.

Anthony S. Travis, Perkin, Sir William Henry (1838-1907), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004


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