Painting the world purple and blue: why you should consider becoming a colour chemist

We don’t often associate chemistry with fame and fortune, but in 1856, William Perkin discovered both after accidentally formulating the colour purple – at the time, he was trying to find a cure for malaria. Luckily for Perkin, purple was a highly coveted colour – in fact, laws at the time allowed only the king to wear purple!


Until Perkin’s big discovery, purple (or, to be specific, Tyrian purple) was made from the mucus of sea snails. The snails were found in Tyre, a Phoenician city on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea (known today as Lebanon), and the process of extraction was a smelly one – so much so that it required the dye vats to sit on the edge of the town, leading the Roman author Pliny the Elder to declare purple a “dye with an offensive smell”.


Amazingly, given how many were necessary to sate the appetite of emperors and kings, the sea snails managed to avoid extinction up until a few years ago, when they succumbed to the rise in sea temperatures as a result of global warming.


So, when 18- year-old Perkin accidentally synthesised the most intense purple ever seen in 1853, it was a big deal. Perkin’s discovery singlehandedly changed purple’s status from a “royal” colour to a colour that everyone could enjoy. His genius, however, continued beyond this discovery. Having discovered purple, Perkin decided to find a way to mass-produce the compound as a dye. He called his mixture mauveine, or, as we know it today, mauve. Perkin’s mauve soon captured the imaginations and desires of the masses. Soon the streets of London and Paris – the fashion capitals of Europe – were ablaze with the colour, causing a trend dubbed “mauveine measles”. The final seal of approval, however, came from royalty itself, when Queen Victoria appeared in a silk gown dyed in mauveine at the Royal Exhibition of 1862.


New research has also found that Perkin was a more adept chemist than he was ever given credit for. Dr John Plater, a senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, has compared a small quantity of the mauveine kept in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry to sixpence stamps produced using the dye between 1865 and 1869. Plater found significant differences in the manufacturing process. The museum-stored mauveine used two key ingredients, but the dye used on the majority of stamps analysed contained a very different composition to Perkin’s mauveine, making a different method of synthesis seem quite reasonable. This indicates that Perkin created a subtle variation of his famous dye in order to hide the true formulation from his competitors. Plater’s theory is also backed up with evidence from a famous lecture of Perkin’s in 1896, in which he expressed his concerns about competition.


William Perkin went to achieve several more scientific accomplishments in his time, but it is the formulation of mauveine that he is best known for, with the Society of Chemical Industry even creating the Perkin Medal in 1906 to commemorate the discovery of mauve; the first medal was awarded to its namesake at a banquet held in his honour.


Of course, the age of accidental discoveries of new colours has not passed us by yet. In 2009, Mas Subramanian – a chemist at the Oregon State University – heated manganese oxide and other chemicals to over 1200°C (2200°F), with one of the reactions accidentally yielding the nearest-perfect blue pigment to date, nicknamed YInMn blue. The colour’s high reflective properties can even be used in paint to help keep buildings cool, as it reflects infrared light. Its winning quality, however, is that YlnMn blue is non-carcinogenic: unlike Prussian or cobalt blue, YlnMn blue is far more stable when exposed to heat or acidic conditions, and doesn’t release cyanide. The pigment has already become popular with artists and designers, with Shepherd Colour Company already having issued a patent to sell the colour.


Given the evidence, we think colour chemists (indeed, all chemists) are pretty cool as far as STEM professionals go – not a bad way to achieve fame and fortune, either.

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