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Who was Sir William Henry Perkin? Google honors British chemist behind purple dye

In honor of what would have been British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin’s 180th birthday, U.K.-based illustrator Sonny Ross created a perfectly purple doodle for Google’s homepage to celebrate his discovery of the vibrant color.

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Here’s what you should know about Perkin, who accidentally made the discovery in 1856.

Google doodle of Sir William Henry Perkin’s 180th birthday, illustrated by Sonny Ross.

When London-born Sir William Henry Perkin was 18 years old, he and his professor were working in a chemistry lab trying to find some way to make quinine, an expensive chemical substance found in the bark of a cinchona tree and known to be the best available treatment for malaria at the time. 

During that spring of 1856, as Perkin and his professor at the Royal College of Chemistry were hard at work but nearing the end of a failed experiment, legend has it that while he was cleaning “dark muck from a beaker after a failed experiment,” Google noted in its blog, the young chemist came upon a “vivid purple stain.”

It was the first aniline or coal-tar dye to ever be discovered.

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He named the aniline purple dye “mauveine” and worked to patent, manufacture and commercialize it during an era in which the textile industry was at a high.

According to Britannica Encyclopedia, Perkins, with the help of his brother and father, set up a manufacturing plant near his town of Harrow in Middlesex.

“If you were an average person in the 1850s your wardrobe would have been made up of many shades of beige and browns. Fabric dyes were derived from plants and insects and expensive to make. Colourful wardrobes were a significant symbol of wealth; in particular purples were the often used in the garments of popes and monarchs,” according to the Science Museum. “Perkin’s synthetic colourant was a gateway, leading to the emergence of the synthetic dye industry. This is a celebrated historical story that focuses on firsts, in an industry that produced a rainbow of fantastic colours; mauve has become famous because it was the first synthetic dye.”

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“That industry not only brought new paints, pigments, and dyes into the world, but it was ultimately responsible for major innovations such as synthetic rubber, fibers such as nylon and polyester, and miracle drugs such as penicillin,” Regina Lee Blaszcyzk, professor at the University of Leeds and author of “The Color Revolution,” told CNN in 2017. 

In 1906, on the 50th anniversary of his discovery, Perkin was knighted by Queen Victoria herself, who in 1862 wore a mauveine-dyed gown to the Royal Exhibition.

Learn more about the chemist at Brittanica.com.

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