From Chapter 3: Just How Much a New Colour Was Worth

In the first months of 1856, Gustave Flaubert began Madame Bovary, Karl Bechstein opened his piano factory, the plans for the bell Big Ben were drawn up at a foundry in Whitechapel and Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross. During the Easter holidays of that year, August Hofmann returned briefly to Germany, and William Perkin retired to his laboratory on the top floor of his home in the East End of London. Perkin’s domestic workplace contained a small table and a few shelves for bottles. He had constructed a furnace in the fireplace. There was no running water or gas supply, and the room was lit by old glass spirit lamps. It was an amateur’s laboratory, an enthusiast’s collection of stained beakers and testubes and rudimentary chemicals. The room smelled of ammonia. The table on which he worked was stained with spillage from previous efforts, and probably from ink. He was surrounded by landscape paintings and early photographs, and by jugs and mugs and other domestic trinkets that were as alien to a laboratory as delicate soda crystals were to any other house in this smoky residential neighbourhood. It was an unexpected setting for one of chemistry’s most romantic and significant moments.

Looking back, Perkin adopted a rather nonchalent tone to describe his actions. “I was endeavouring to convert an artificial base into the natural alcoloid quinine, but my experiment, instead of yielding the colourless quinine, gave a reddish powder. With a desire to understand this particular result, a different base of more simple construction was selected, viz. aniline, and in this case obtained a perfectly black product. This was purified and dried, and when digested with spirits of wine gave the mauve dye.”

Read the full extract .pdf format (33k)

Download Adobe PDF reader