Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Lump of Coal, Part 1

In 1856 William Perkin discovered aniline dyes, inventing the first color-fast (doesn't wash out, doesn't fade) form of that purple shade known famously by the name he gave it: MAUVE. Perkin, age 18, had been trying to create a synthetic quinine (cure for malaria) from coal tar derivatives, and instead invented the first mass market synthetic dye.

Even Queen Victoria wore gowns of mauve -- setting the fashion for purples as the third stage of Victorian mourning colors. Grieving widows wore unrelieved black, then black with gray/silver, and finally moving to mauve purples following the example of the Queen.

Perkin went on to produce green, violet, and a commercially viable synthetic madder red. But Perkin and the scientific community did not stop there. Aniline (coal tar) based colorings form the majority of modern textile dyes, wood stains, household and automotive paints -- even food coloring, both water soluble dyes and fat soluble lake colorings come from aniline colors.

Mauve was one of the first links between science and industry and William Henry Perkin retired at the age of 36 a wealthy man. But the story doesn't end there. The man who's wife was the model for the Statue of Liberty had opened a world of possibilities inside a lump of coal.

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