Sir William Henry Perkin: Who was the Victorian chemist who made it possible for Prince to wear purple?


Pioneering British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907), the man who discovered the first artificial clothing dye entirely by accident, was born 180 years ago today.

The anniversary of this eminent Victorian and scion of the Industrial Revolution is commemorated in today’s Google Doodle.

But who was Perkin and how did he come to make his breakthrough aged just 18?

Perkin was raised in Shadwell in East London, the youngest of seven children born to wealthy carpenter George Perkin and his Scottish wife Sarah.

He attended the City of London School at the age of 14 and it was here that influential schoolmaster Thomas Hall first recognised his aptitude for chemistry and encouraged him to pursue its study.

A year later, William entered the Royal College of Chemistry (now part of Imperial College London) on Hall’s recommendation and studied under the great German scientist August Wilhelm von Hofmann.

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Aged just 18, Perkin made the discovery that would define his career. Working on an experiment to synthesise quinine to aid the treatment of malaria, he learned that alcohol could be used to extract an intense purple colour from aniline.

Having a keen interest in photography and painting, Perkin realised his finding’s potential but initially kept it a secret from Hofmann as it indicated the failure of his coursework.

​Collaborating on its development with his brother Thomas and friend Arthur Church from the bowels of his make-shift Cable Street laboratory, Perkin realised the substance could be mass produced and commercialised.

Trialling “mauveine” – as it was now called – as a dye for silks, the trio found it stable and Perkin duly patented the process in 1856.

At the time, all dyes for colouring cloth were derived from natural substances, a costly and labour-intensive business. Purple particularly so, having to be extracted from the glandular mucus of molluscs. Yep, you read that right.

Perkin demonstrated considerable entrepreneurial spirit and prowess in convincing Britain’s then-booming textile industry to adopt mauveine, raising capital, publicising the dye to whip up demand and advising manufacturers on its application to cotton.

His cause was greatly helped when both Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France wore mauveine-coloured gowns on occasions of state – and by a fashion for hooped-skirts taking off.

William spent the rest of his career controlling his business interests and working on new synthetic dyes, offering new shades such as “Britannia Violet” and “Perkin’s Green”.


Pop star Prince is closely identified with the colour purple (Warner Bros/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock)

Legend has it that the Grand Union Canal near his dyeworks in Greenford, Ealing, changed colour week by week depending on what chemicals Perkin was then working with.

He was later knighted for his achievements before dying of pneumonia in 1907 after suffering a burst appendix. All three of his sons became chemists to continue the family line.

What would Prince have done without him?

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