This NBC Learn video, part of a series on "Chance Discoveries" in chemistry, tells the story of the discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauvine (or mauve) in 1856, by a teenaged British chemist trying to make a synthetic quinine to treat malaria in the expanding British colonies. (Images Courtesy of BASF Coorporate Archives, Science Museum London/SSPL, Williams Haynes Portrait Collections, from the collections of the Chemical Heritage Foundation; Gift of Herb Pratt, From the collections of the Chemical Heritage Foundation; Photograph by Gregory Tobias, Gift of American Cyanamid, from the collections of the Chemical Heritage Foundation; Dr. Morley Read / Photo Researchers, Inc.)
Chance Discoveries: Synthetic Dye
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
Fashion and chemistry. You wouldn't necessarily think of the two together, but when talking about synthetic dyes, there couldn't be a better match. The discovery of synthetic dye all started with a young British chemist, a tough challenge and, believe it or not, coal tar. 1856. The Royal College of Chemistry in London. Eighteen year-old William Henry Perkin is given the assignment of developing a synthetic route for the production of quinine, which previously could only be extracted from the bark of a cinchona tree grown in South America.
DR. MICHAL MEYER (Editor in Chief, Chemical Heritage): The wonderful thing about this bark, it can be used to make quinine which is an effective treatment for malaria. And was the only effective treatment for malaria.
COSTELLO: With the expansion of the British Empire into remote parts of the world, malaria was wiping out populations of British civil servants and soldiers in the newly established colonies.
MEYER: So finding a synthetic way of making quinine or at least making quinine much more available and much cheaper was a huge program.
COSTELLO: During an experiment, he took impure aniline sulfate, derived from coal tar, and reacted it with potassium dichromate. The result was not pretty.
MEYER: So he starts off with this black, gunky material but instead of throwing this black precipitate out, he decided, all right, I’m going to see what else I can do with it.
COSTELLO: While wiping up his mess, Perkin noticed that the cloth he was cleaning with was now stained a beautiful, deep purple. It was aniline purple, the first synthetic dye ever produced. It was named mauvine or mauve in 1859 after the French name for mallow flower. Before Perkin's discovery, dyes came from natural products such as flowers, plants and minerals. What made synthetic dyes different was the long-lasting quality that prevented color from fading from textiles like cotton and silk. Historically, purple was a color reserved for royalty. In ancient times, the dye came from rare sources, like small mollusks found in the Mediterranean, making them extremely expensive to produce.
MEYER: What Perkin had just done with his experiment is created an industry that could mass produce these very rare colors, very, very cheaply.
COSTELLO: Even Queen Victoria wore mauve, making the color extremely fashionable at the time. Perkin patented his new dye and opened his own dyeworks factory on the bank of the Grand Union Canal in London.
MEYER: Perkin built his factory along a canal because he needed water. And the story goes that the water in the canal would change color every week depending on what dye he was making that particular week. His first color was mauve, but he also created a green and a violet.
COSTELLO: Although the first synthetic dye was discovered in England, the resulting coal-tar dye industry became a highly profitable business in Germany through World War I. Demand was high, especially in America, where the chemical industry didn't know the secret to producing the dyes.
MEYER: These dyes had a huge influence on the fashion industry, but they could also be used in medicine because they could stain cells. So for the first time, scientists could actually look inside a cell and see what was happening.
COSTELLO: Out of the German dye industry emerged the first pharmaceutical companies. With this new technique of examining human cells, the first tuberculosis bacteria was discovered, thus leading to the invention of the first true antibiotic, Prontosil. Whether staining cells or brightening fabrics, Perkin's discovery is one that is truly to dye for.
This famous sequence of letters known to much of the world dates back to the 16th century B.C.
A fairly small group of traders and merchants known as the Phoenicians created the foundation for the modern English alphabet and other alphabets. They organized a system of 22 consonants into what became the alphabet used not only by English speakers but by speakers of many of the world's languages.
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