Historically, textile dyes were made from such natural sources as plants and animal excretions. Some of these, such as the glandular mucus of snails, were difficult to obtain and outrageously expensive. Indeed, the purple colour extracted from a snail was once so costly that in society at the time only the rich could afford it. Further, natural dyes tended to be muddy in hue and fade quickly. It was against this backdrop that Perkin’s discovery was made.
Perkin quickly grasped that his purple solution could be used to colour fabric, thus making it the world’s first synthetic dye. Realising the importance of this breakthrough, he lost no time in patenting it. But perhaps the most fascinating of all Perkin’s reactions to his find was his nearly instant recognition that the new dye had commercial possibilities.
Perkin originally named his dye Tyrian Purple, but it later became commonly known as mauve (from the French for the plant used to make the colour violet). He asked advice of Scottish dye works owner Robert Pullar, who assured him that manufacturing the dye would be well worth it if the colour remained fast (i.e. would not fade) and the cost was relatively low. So, over the fierce objections of his mentor Hofmann, he left college to give birth to the modern chemical industry.
With the help of his father and brother, Perkin set up a factory not far from London. Utilising the cheap and plentiful coal tar that was an almost unlimited by product of London’s gas street lighting, the dye works began producing the world’s first synthetically dyed material in 1857. The company received a commercial boost from the Empress Eugenie of France, when she decided the new colour flattered her. Very soon, mauve was the necessary shade for all the fashionable ladies in that country.
Not to be outdone, England’s Queen Victoria also appeared in public wearing a mauve gown, thus making it all the rage in England as well. The dye was bold and fast, and the public clamoured for more. Perkin went back to the drawing board.
Although Perkin’s fame was achieved and fortune assured by his first discovery, the chemist continued his research. Among other dyes he developed and introduced were aniline red (1859) and aniline black (1863) and, in the late 1860s, Perkin’s green. It is important to note that Perkin’s synthetic dye discoveries had outcomes far beyond the merely decorative. The dyes also became vital to medical research in many ways. For instance, they were used to stain previously invisible microbes and bacteria, allowing researchers to identify such bacilli as tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax. Artificial dyes continue to play a crucial role today. And, in what would have been particularly pleasing to Perkin, their current use is in the search for a vaccine against malaria.