Mauve

The idea for Mauve came from a book my son Ben brought home one day from school. ‘Chemical Chaos’ contained, in simple language and cartoons, some fascinating stories of scientific discoveries and misdemeanours. One of them, about the accidental discovery of the first mass-produced artificial dye, I found particularly intriguing. I had seldom given much thought to the origin of colours or their manufacture, nor the effect they might have on people’s lives. The story of mauve was also interesting because its brilliant young inventor William Perkin had not previously given much thought to colour either; he was searching for a way of making artificial quinine from coal-tar to save British soldiers dying from malaria in India, and he got something wrong in his formula. The residue of this experiment was a deep brown sludge that dyed his shirt a lustrous purple. This was something truly valuable, because previously this shade could only be obtained from Mediterranean shellfish, and it took an awful lot of them to make a ballgown.

I was able to tell the full story of Perkin, his colour and the world of chemical dyes because of Longitude, Dava Sobel’s account of the life and inventions of the clockmaker John Harrison. Suddenly there was a thriving literary genre that hardly existed before: books about small things that meant a lot. The subtitle for Mauve on the hardback jacket was ‘How One Man Invented A Colour That Changed The World’, but we abandoned that for the paperback because it had begun to sound naff. Not long after Mauve appeared, almost everything and everyone had begun to change the world in some way; soon there would be a book about dust.

One fact I shouldn’t really admit: on page 200, in an Author’s note, I made a colour of my own – dava - a concealed acknowledgement of the Longitude effect. I was describing a dream I had about Perkin. The lines in question are: ‘...safflower, sandalwood and dava. So beleagured, he felt like...’ Geddit? Dava. So bel...The book sold quite a few copies all over the world, and no one spotted this (or at least no one got in touch to say they had - I might have provided a special prize).

2006 is the 150th anniversary of Perkin’s accident, and there will be some events to mark the occasion. The significance of his discovery extends far beyond fashion, although the fact that you could make colour in a factory was a revelation. Other artificial colours followed, and soon dyers in Germany learnt how to produce the rainbow. Perkin himself produced a green and a violet, and the canal which ran alongside his factory near Wembley turned a different colour every week.

Perkin’s mauve was also significant as one of the first important links between pure chemistry and industry at a time when the two were even more distrustful of each other than they are now. Most significantly, coal-tar dyes found many medicinal uses. In 1882, well into Perkin’s retirement, the German biologist Walther Flemming used samples of Perkin’s dyes to study cells under a microscope. The staining process revealed clearly for the first time the physical make-up of a nucleus, a mass of proteins that Flemming distinguished initially as chromatin, from the Greek word for colour. On closer inspection, and further dying, he observed cells in the process of division, and the threadlike bundles he named chromosomes.
Coal-tar derivatives were crucial in the work of German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, particularly in his pioneering development of chemotherapy. His colleague Robert Koch, who was awarded the Nobel Prize, was also grateful to Perkin, using the dye methylene blue to discover the tuberculosis bacillus. Modern dyes are now employed in work that perhaps would have pleased Perkin more than any other - the search for a vaccine against malaria. And recent research at Imperial College has found a revolutionary use for dyes in an important treatment of cancer called photodynamic therapy, which involves the staining of tumours before blasting them with a high-precision laser.

A neat final twist. In the summer of 2005 I was given a hard-hat tour of the new Wembley Stadium by one of its two principal architects Rod Sheard. Wembley was about nine months away from completion, so there were drills and wires and drying cement everywhere. Sheard, an Australian with a love for story telling, took me round what would soon be the royal box and the top tier, and when we were in one of the many huge restaurants he explained the thinking behind its colour theme. It was to be mauve, he said. Not knowing I had written the book, he went on to tell me that the man who had invented it had his factory not far from Wembley, and the colour had come about by accident. I didn’t have the heart to stop him.

The extract is from Chapter 3, when Perkin makes his breakthrough.

The Audio clip is of Tom Baker reading the first section on BBC Radio 4, a Watershed production produced by Chris Wallis.

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