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William Henry Perkin
William Henry Perkin was born in London on the 12th day of March, 1838. As a young boy he liked all things mechanical, even trying to make a primitive engine, and at 12 years old a friend introduced him to chemistry. "... I saw there was in chemistry something far beyond the other pursuits with which I had previously been occupied," he said in later life. So he enrolled in the City of London school and made sure to attended the lectures given every week by Thomas Hall, one of the school's better instructors.

It was Hall who helped him transfer to the Royal College of Science, even though he was only 15 years old! There he met, and obviously impressed, an important "star" in the scientific world; August Wilhelm von Hofmann.

properties of coal tar

Something about Perkin's enthusiasm, dedication and obvious intelligence convinced Hofmann that the boy had potential, so he made the young lad his personal assistant and set him to work probing the properties of coal tar. This was a substance Hofmann was certain had as much potential as the boy Perkin, and the two seemed to go together.

It was slow work, however, and a frustrated Perkin would often take his current research project home with him and work on it in his own chemistry laboratory, which he had set up in his parent's house.

making new molecules

A new wave of scientific thought was sweeping the laboratories and colleges in England and Europe, the idea that chemical molecules could be made by humans as well as by nature. Synthesis - the making of molecules, was the new hot topic of research, and probably with an eye to its commercial as well as medical value, Hofmann set his then 17 year old assistant the task of making the molecule quinine.

This was the only drug known at the time to have any effect on that plague of the British Empire - malaria. More British soldiers died, or were incapacitated, by malaria than by all their human enemies combined. The only natural source of the drug quinine was the bark of a tree, so anyone who found a way to make it artificially would surely profit.

Since no one knew much about the structure of the drug, Perkin's efforts were probably doomed to failure from the start, and his first attempt using the sulfate salt of allytoluidine and potassium dichromate only produced a slimy sludge.

a sticky mess

But when he turned to using one of the chemicals found in coal tar - analine - his failure was even more profound, and all he got was a black sticky mess in the bottom of his tubes.

This was were Hofmann's choice of an assistant paid off. He had probably chosen Perkin because of his inquisitive mind, and where a less curious assistant would have probably thrown away his latest failure, Perkin added alcohol. Why he did so is one of those unanswerable questions, but he later claimed that he had seen a glint of purple among the gooy mess at the bottom of his tube.

Adding that alcohol certainly changed Perkin's life and probably that of organic chemistry. For, something in the goo dissolved in the alcohol turning it into a vivid shade of purple. The first synthetic dye that had ever been made was now swirling around before the young boy's eyes.

money for color

Again, a lesser person might have marveled for a moment and then tipped the whole lot down the sink, but Perkin saw a different potential. Suspecting that the color might have commercial use, he followed the advice of a friend and sent a specimen to a Scottish dyer who not only reported that it was a valuable dye, but wanted to buy some.

After considerable difficulties (for he was only 18 years old), Perkin patented the dye, which he called aniline-purple, and raised the capital he needed to set himself up in the business of chemical-manufacturing. Even in Victorian England, which admired entrepreneurs, this latter feat was remarkable in itself. By 1856 he, his brother Thomas and his father had set up an aniline manufacturing plant near the town of Harrow, and the modern age of chemical engineering had begun.

By a coincidence of timing, purple was the "in" color in the 1860s and was all the rage in fashion world of the time. Dressmakers in France (much ahead of England when it came to matters of fashion) seized on the dye and changed it's name to mauve. When Queen Victoria wore a mauve colored dress at the Royal Exhibition in 1862, "mauve-madness" took off in a big way.

commercial success

He became rich, but was constantly pressured to develop more colorful, brighter dyes such as alizarin, which he co-discovered in about 1868 and patented in 1869. But his heart and his interest was not in the "rat-race" of fashion and business, it lay in the quieter streams of pure scientific research.

So, as a very rich man, he sold his business in 1874, retired, and turned back to his roots; the laboratory. His career in business might have been over, but his expertise as a chemist did not fade as fast. He is still known today for the "Perkin reaction", the synthesis of aminoacetic acid (glycol), the synthesis of racemic acid from di-bromo-succinic acid, and the first synthetic perfume - coumarin.

He died in July of 1907, only a short time after receiving the Perkin Medal, the highest honor awarded by the American section of the Society of Chemical Industry, and being knighted "Sir William Henry Perkin" in 1906.

Science@a Distance
© 2002, Professor John Blamire