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Mauve (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Rarely do we think of a color as being invented by a person, yet in the case of the color mauve this might be a reasonable way to think about it. It started when thirteen year old William Henry Perkin wanted to take a chemistry class in London.

His father thought chemistry a waste of time, and even though the class met only at lunch he refused to pay for it. Henry persisted until his father gave in. This course sparked an intense interest in chemistry, so much so that Perkin wished to pursue it at the Royal College of London. His father still saw no future in it, but again Perkin persisted until he persuaded his father. Perkin started College at age 15, and by 17 had finished the basic courses. This earned him a job as a lab assistant to a chemistry professor.

He was given the job of making quinine, a drug used to fight malaria, something important to an Empire as vast as the British one. While mixing up his chemicals, Perkin accidentally made a dark sludge. He was about to throw it away when he noticed it stained his bench cloth. It dyed the cloth what he called a "strangely beautiful" color. It was an elusive color that shifted from pale violet to a deep purplish red. When he tried to wash it out he couldn't, nor did it fade over time. Perkin had made, accidentally, the first successful synthetic dye.

At the time this was quite an achievement because the palette of dyes was very limited. They came only from nature - shellfish, insects, vegetables, and plants - and this made the colors very expensive. For example, Tyrian Purple, a favorite of Royalty, cost a great deal because it required crushing thousands of small mollusks imported from the Mediterranean sea. Yet, now Perkin has made cheaply in his lab a purple color. He named it Mauve, after a French flower of a similar color.

The young Perkin formed a company and began manufacturing his mauve dye. It became immensely popular when Queen Victoria wore it to her daughter's wedding. Soon the color appeared in everything from stamps to sausages. This allowed Perkin to retire a very rich man at age 36. He devoted his retirement to developing artificial scents for perfume.

Perkin's achievement, though, is beyond just bringing color to the world. He showed that chemistry could be useful and profitable. He paved the way for drugs designed by humans. Aspirin, for example, was derived from a chemical dye. So, in many ways Perkin was responsible for the enormous advances we've seen in our lifetime in medicine, perfume, food, explosives, and photography.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises