William Henry Perkin and the first synthetic dye

Since antiquity, people have been dyeing their clothes using naturally occurring materials. However, these dyes are expensive to produce and are of unreliable quality, so their use was typically limited to nobles and aristocrats. This brings us to the 1850s, an era where the understanding of chemistry was still very crude. Atomic theory was understood, as was the ability to determine the relative proportion of elements in a compound, that is to say its empirical formula (e.g., H2O for water), but the relative orientation of the atoms in molecules was still largely a mystery. This was also during the industrial revolution in England, where coal tar was being produced in vast quantities as a by-product of the generation of coke and coal gas used to fire steel mills and light houses, respectively. Naturally, uses for coal tar were actively sought at this time.

August Wilhelm von Hofmann had postulated that quinine, a natural product of the cinchona tree used to treat malaria, might be manufactured from the inexpensively available coal tar. He hired a young assistant named William Henry Perkin to pursue this task. One day, while Hofmann was on vacation in his native Germany, Perkin discovered, entirely by chance, that after performing a reaction in his apartment, that aniline, a component of coal tar, had produced a brilliant violet extract. This contained a dye he called mauveine. Perkin chose to keep his discovery secret from his employer because it did not pertain to the synthesis of quinine.

Perkin applied for a patent for mauveine in 1856 at the age of 18. It was particularly exciting because purple was a very difficult dye to produce at the time. The option was to use tyrian purple, a product extracted from sea snails. This color became popular at the time because it was favoured by Queen Victoria of England and Empress Eugenie of France. Perkin was able to successfully produce and market his invention to commercial dyers and textile mills, and became extremely rich. However, he did not retire and continued to study chemistry for the remainder of his life and invented additional dyes. He also has a reaction named for him (the Perkin reaction), which is used to produce different cinnamic acids, and synthesized coumarin, a perfumery compound originally isolated from tonka beans whose derivatives are currently used as anticoagulants (e.g., warfarin).

Dr. Andrew Carrier