Sir William Henry Perkin, who 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.
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.