An invention to dye for: the colour purple

Research chemist William Perkin was trying to make quinine when he instead came up with a substance that has ensured the world is a brighter place. A new exhibition marks his discovery, 150 years ago this Easter
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Shug Avery, the rebellious singer who first befriends and then beds the timid heroine of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, knew a thing or two about getting noticed - it was the first stage towards getting what she wanted. She recognised the phenomenon in the natural world too. "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it," she remarks.

From the earliest cultures to the present day, people have sought to harness the visual power of purple to mark themselves out as different, better than those around them. From bishops to kings, pop stars to fashion models, its wearing has been a calculated act of showing off. In life as in language too. Witness a "purple patch" for a fruitful or creative period, or in writing when too highly florid a style can be damned as "purple prose".

In ancient Rome the termporphyrogenitus or "born to the purple" indicated a dynastic emperor, not someone who had taken the position through mere military force. But times have changed. In the great consumer democracy of the 21st century, even the most humble citizen can chose it as the colour of their latest shell suit. For that privilege, thank a young Victorian research chemist. His attempt to create the anti-malarial medicine quinine from coal tar in his flat in Cable Street in the East End of London went serendipitously wrong as he worked over Easter 150 years ago.

A precocious talent, William Perkin, had entered the Royal College of Chemistry aged only 15. He was determined to prove the claim of his mentor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, that quinine could be synthesised in a laboratory. Despite his best efforts, Perkin produced little more than a black, sticky mess that turned purple when he dissolved it in alcohol. Rather than the cure desperately need for British soldiers dying from malaria in India, his aniline purple proved instead to be a long-lasting dye that was to transform fashion.

Until then, brilliant purple dye that did not fade in the wash or in sunshine was an expensive substance made much as it was in Roman times. Tyrian purple, as it was called, was produced in a foul-smelling and time-consuming process that needed thousands of molluscs to be boiled down in order to harvest their glandular mucus. The technique had been developed by the Phoenicians and little progress had been made since. Cheaper purple dyes were messily made from lichens soaked in urine and bat droppings.

Perkin repeated his experiments in his garden shed, perfecting the nascent process for making the substance he had called mauveine after the French mallow plant. It was, says Simon Garfield, the author of Mauve which details Perkin's life and work, an astonishing breakthrough. "Once you could do that you could make colour in a factory from chemicals rather than insects or plants. It opened up the prospect of mass-produced artificial dyes and made Perkin one of the first scientists to bridge the gap between pure chemistry and its industrial applications."

The chemist, still only 18, was quick to capitalise on his creation, patenting the product, convincing his father and brother to back it with savings, and finding a manufacturer who could help him bring it rapidly to the market. And the people loved it.

Appropriately, considering the origins of Perkins' colour, he was to receive a helping hand from the two most famous women of the day - both empresses. Queen Victoria caused a sensation when she stepped out at the Royal Exhibition in 1862 wearing a silk gown dyed with mauveine. In Paris, Napoleon III's wife, Empress Eugenie, wowed the court when she was seen wearing it. To propel the scientist further on the way to a great fortune, the fashion of the time was for crinoline skirts that, happily for him, needed a lot of his revolutionary new dye.

It is difficult to know if Perkin's fame would be as celebrated today should his dye have been a different colour. According to Simon Garfield: "It just happened to be luck that it was mauve. If it had been green he would have exploited that too but mauve became very big because it was a very hard colour to produce."

His later inventions are testament to this theory. Few can have heard of his Britannia Violet or Perkin's Green. Later, he was to be beaten to the patent of a particularly brilliant red dye by the German chemical giant BASF.

In a fitting tribute to the inventor, a restaurant in the royal quarters at the new Wembley stadium will be decked out in "mauveine". The arena stands close to the site where Perkin's factory turned the Grand Union Canal the colours he was experimenting on with toxic regularity.

Perkins, ever the serious scientist, would have been among the first to point out that his mauve is but one of a range of colours described in everyday language as purple. Not itself a true colour of the spectrum - that position is given to indigo and violet - purple normally refers to those colours which inhabit the limits of human perception in the area between red and violet. Newton excluded the colour from his colour wheel. Scientists today talk about the "line of purples" which include violet, mauve, magenta, indigo and lilac.

In the alternative medicine practice of colour therapy, which practitioners say can trace its origins to Ayurvedic tradition in ancient India, the "purple range" colours of indigo and violet are vital. They refer to spiritual energy centres known as chakras and are situated in the head. The colours were first formalised by the Swiss scientist Dr Max Luscher, who said appropriately coloured lights, applied to specific chakras, could treat ailments from depression to grief.

Julia Kubler is one of Britain's leading colour therapists and has been treating patients at her clinic at Manningtree, Essex, for 15 years. Each person, she says, exhibits a unique response to certain colours which are central in her diagnosis and treatment therapies. "Purple colours are consistent with intuition and higher understanding, with spirituality and meditation. It combines the coolness of blue with a bit of red that makes it not just passive but active," she says.

It is hardly the most outlandish of claims for this most enigmatic of colours. Variously touted as the colour of everything from insanity to equality, it is enjoying a new role as the symbol of political compromise. Purple may have had its origins in the ancient world, but thanks to a young chemist in London's East End, it still has a brilliant future.