Innovation in Obscurity: The invention of modern colors and the global chemicals industry

Mauve as a color has always been a bit of a puzzle. It’s not exactly purple, or lilac, or magenta. It’s certainly not very popular today, and if you showed up at work wearing mauve you’d raise eyebrows. Somehow it conjures up images of grandmothers and musty old drawing rooms with fading wallpaper. It’s yesterday’s color — so what could it possibly have to do with innovation?

A lot, as it turns out. As Simon Garfield explains, eighteen-year-old William Perkin was trying to make quinine in his home laboratory one day in 1856, using the waste product coal tar. Malaria was still a reality in England at the time, and coal tar was piling up in waste sites and streams as coal was converted to methane to light Victorian street lamps. By accident, he synthesized a strange black powder he couldn’t identify. Instead of throwing it away, he purified it and soon realized it was a dye, turning textiles like wool and cotton a pale purple color. He called the substance mauvine.

Perkin was studying chemistry under the famous Professor August Wilhem von Hofmann at the time, but wasn’t eager to show off his discovery to his mentor. For one thing, he believed correctly that Hoffman would consider it a useless distraction from more refined academic pursuits. Perkin instead struck out on his own, contacting a Scottish dyer and sending him a sample of fabric dyed with his new substance. The response was enthusiastic, and he quickly realized there was a commercial future for his discovery.

Almost overnight, mauve was everywhere, and Perkin become astonishingly rich.

He managed to convince his father and brother of the same thing, and they spent the family savings building a factory at Greenford in northwest London. Within six months they were manufacturing and selling mauve and seeing real revenues. Word of the new dye spread quickly, and the color soon became very fashionable, especially when Empress Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III) began favoring mauve in 1857 because it matched her eyes, and Queen Victoria wore a mauve dress to her daughter’s wedding in 1858. Almost overnight, mauve was everywhere, and Perkin become astonishingly rich.

This story isn’t just about fashion innovation. It matters because mauve was the first step in the creation of the global chemicals industry, proving that chemistry had valuable commercial applications and creating revenue streams to pay large numbers of chemists to work on further practical discoveries. For all its flaws, we literally couldn’t have modern life without commercial chemistry: pharmaceuticals, agriculture, plastics, textiles, fuel, and countless other products that we use every day are made by it. Had Perkin been a little less daring and entrepreneurial — or perhaps a little older and more jaded — he might have thrown the mauvine down the drain, and the world would have had to wait for the beneficial innovations that it sparked.

So why don’t we all know this story? The answer is the same thing that complicates Garfield’s narrative and makes the book less than it should be: Perkin was basically boring. Despite the brilliant color that his discovery unleashed, he led a largely colorless life. He continued to work diligently but unremarkably through his later years, rarely traveled, had few hobbies and fewer vices, and lived a long, pious life of charity and modest research. Where’s the fun in that? Garfield has so much trouble rescuing Perkin from modest obscurity that he’s reduced to literally recounting the hurrahs received at the gala dinner in honor of the 50th anniversary of his discovery.

Perkin continued to work diligently but unremarkably throughout his later years, rarely traveled, had few hobbies and fewer vices, and lived a long, pious life of charity and modest research. Where’s the fun in that?

In fact, the much more compelling personality in these pages is von Hoffman, who taught Perkin chemistry and launched countless brilliant careers in between hanging out with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. His story is much glitizer: he had four wives and eleven children, made fundamental contributions across many fields in chemistry, and inspired gushing biographies. His statue in Berlin was destroyed by an RAF raid during World War II, which somehow seems appropriate given the fact that after he left England to return to Germany, the German chemicals industry grew to significantly out-compete the English one that Perkin launched. (It’s worth remembering that industrial chemistry played a huge role in World War I, enabling Germany to fight for years with very limited sources of fuel and ammunition.)

Yet this is the truth of innovation: the real innovators aren’t always the ones in the limelight. Quiet, diligent, outwardly unremarkable people often are the true source of the key technical advances or the fundamental insights that are critical for innovation. That’s an important thing to remember in the age of charismatic, outspoken technology entrepreneurs like Musk and Zuckerberg. Perkin, great innovator that he was, probably wouldn’t have had any followers on Twitter.

Perkin, great innovator that he was, probably wouldn’t have had any followers on Twitter.

One of the other fascinating parts of this history is the impact of mauve and other synthetic dyes on society. In today’s world we see color everywhere we look — our clothes, cars, buildings, signs, and screens all pulse with a million different shades — and we can’t imagine life without it. But the early 19th century was a much more drab place. Because dyes were expensive, only the rich could afford things with deep, vibrant colors, and even those tended to fade quickly. Color was a luxury, and the world that people saw every day reflected that economic and technological fact.

The invention of mauvine, and the other cheap synthetic dyes that followed it, dramatically changed this. Mauve itself replaced the color previously known as Tyrian Purple, which was made from hand-collected sea snails and so expensive that it became associated with royalty. But Perkin’s discovery meant that even the poorest of consumers could suddenly wear the color of kings and queens, and the world was transformed. People’s daily experience became increasingly saturated with color, with dyed clothing, wallpaper, and other objects everywhere. In a sense, mauve made the world that we see today.

On a recent visit to London I took the Underground to Greenford and walked the short distance to the spot where the Perkins built their factory. It’s now a parking lot and office building, but a blue plaque marks this seminal site of modern chemistry, and the Black Horse pub still stands next door.

As if to make up for Perkin’s lack of sex appeal, about five hundred yards away is the former location the Oldfield Hotel, where The Who had their first gig in 1964. Sadly, there’s no evidence that the rockers knew about their connection to the invention of modern color, except for one intriguing possibility. Keith Moon’s famous Rolls Royce (which he may or may not have driven into a swimming pool) was at one point painted the most appropriate color for his wild lifestyle: mauve. Maybe he realized that he owed a debt to the man who invented it.

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Colin McCormick

Colin McCormick

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Technologist, physicist, energy policy expert. Carbon Direct, Georgetown University, Valence Strategic, Conservation X Labs.