Friday 2 May 2014

Men of Yore: William Henry Perkin

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

William Henry Perkin

Early Life
Perkin was born in London in 1838. He was the youngest son of George Fowler Perkin, a builder and contractor, who had apparently decided his son’s future before the latter had discarded his swaddling clothes. Perkin, Jr., was to be an architect.  But Perkin, Jr., had not yet decided for himself. Perhaps it was a street car conductor one day, a prime minister the next, and an engine driver the third. And then again; watching his, father’s carpenters at work, he wished to become a mechanic of some kind; and plans for buildings fired him with the ambition of becoming a painter.

In any case, in his thirteenth year he had an opportunity of watching some experiments on crystallization. It goes without saying that he forhwith decided to be a chemist.

Were it not that about this time Perkin entered the City of London School, and there came in contact with one of the science masters, Mr. Thomas Hall, this latest decision might have been as fleeting as his previous ones.

The City of London School, like all important educational institutions of the day, considered science as an imposter in the curriculum, so that whilst Latin received a considerable slice of the day’s attention, poor little chemistry could be squeezed in only in the interval set aside for lunch.

A few boys, and among them Perkin, were sufficiently interested to forego many of their lunches and watch “Tommy Hall” perform experiments.

Hall’s infectious personality made young Perkin all enthusiastic. He was going to be a chemist, and he was going to the Royal College of Science, of which, and of its renowned chemical professor, Hall had told him much.

Hall’s earnest pleading finally overcame the father’s opposition, and in his fifteenth year Perkin entered the College. “Mr. W. Crookes,” the assistant, was the one immediately in charge.

The head professor was Hofmann, an imported product. So suggestive and illustrative were the great chemist’s lectures that, in the second semester, Perkin begged and obtained permission to hear them once again.

In the laboratory Perkin was put through the routine in qualitative and quantitative chemistry, Bunsen’s gas analysis methods serving as an appendix. This was followed by a research problem on anthracene, carried out under Hofmann’s direction, which yielded negative results, but which paved the way for successful work later. His second problem on naphthylamine proved somewhat more successful, and was subsequently published in the Chemical Journal—the first of more than eighty papers to appear from his pen.

When but seventeen Perkin already had shown his mettle to such an extent that Hofmann appointed him to an assistantship. This otherwise flattering appointment had, however, the handicap that it left Perkin no time for research. To overcome this, the enthusiastic boy fixed up a laboratory in his own home, and there, in the evenings, and in vacation time, the lad tried explorations into unknown regions.

The celebrated experiment which was to give the 17-year-old lad immortality for all time was carried out in the little home laboratory in the Easter vacation of 1856. It arose from some comments by Hofmann on the desirability and the possibility of preparing the alkaloid, quinine, artificially.

Starting first with toluidine, and then, when toluidine gave unsatisfactory results, with aniline—both being products of coal tar—Perkin treated a salt of the latter with bichromate of potash and obtained a dirty black precipitate.

Dirty, slimy precipitates had been obtained before and had, as a rule, been discarded as objectionable by-products. Perkin’s first instinct to throw the “ rubbish “ away was overcome by a second, which urged him to make a more careful examination. And this soon resulted in the isolation of the first dye ever produced from coal tar—the now well-known aniline purple or mauve.

A sample of the dye was sent to Messrs. Pullar, of Perth, with the request that it be tried on silk. “If your discovery does not make the goods too expensive, it is decidedly one of the most valuable that has come out for a long time ...” was the answer. Trials on cotton were not so successful, mainly because suitable mordants were not known. This second result some-what dampened the enthusiasm of our young friend.

Nevertheless, Perkin decided to patent the process, and, if possible, to improve the product, as well as to find improved means of application.

Full of hope and courage, the young lad had decided to stake his future on the success or failure of this enterprise. He was going to leave the Royal College of Science, and with the financial backing of his father—who seems to have had a sublime faith in his son’s ability—he was going to build a factory where the dye could be produced in quantity.

Hofmann was shown the dye and was told of the resolution. The well-meaning professor, who seemed to have had more than a passing fondness for the lad, tried all he could to persuade Perkin against any such undertaking. And let it be added that in that day, to any man with any practical common sense, Perkin’s venture seemed doomed from the start.

A site for the factory was obtained at Greenford Green, near Harrow, and the building commenced in June, 1857.

“At this time,” wrote Perkin years later, “neither I nor my friends had seen the inside of a chemical works, and whatever knowledge I had was obtained from books. This, however, was not so serious a draw-back as at first it might appear to be; as the kind of apparatus required and the character of the operations to be performed were so entirely different from any in use that there was but little to copy from.”

The practical difficulties Perkin had to overcome were such that, in comparison, the actual discovery of the dye seems a small affair. Since most of the apparatus that was required could not be obtained, it had first to be devised, then tested, and finally applied.


Today the most fundamental operations in every dye factory are nitration — the conversion, say, of benzene to nitrobenzene---and reduction—the conversion of nitro-benzene to aniline. The mode of procedure, the technique, the apparatus—all are based on the work of this eighteen-year-old lad. Only those who have attempted to repeat on an industrial scale what has been successfully carried out in the laboratory on a small scale, will appreciate the difficulties to be overcome, and the extraordinary ability that Perkin must have possessed to have overcome them.

Some have described Perkin’s discovery as accidental. Perhaps it was. But consider the way it was perfected and made available; consider with what extraordinary ability every related topic was handled; consider how every move was a new move, with no previous experience to guide him; and who but one endowed with the quality of genius could have overcome all this


In less than six months aniline purple—“Tyrian purple“ it was at first called—was being used for silk dyeing in a Mr. Keith’s dye-house. The demand for it became so great that many other concerns in England, and particularly in France, began its manufacture.  In France it was renamed “mauve,” and “mauve“ it has remained to this day.


Young Perkin had given tremendous impetus to research in pure and applied chemistry. In the preparation of dyes, substances which had, until then, been curiosities, had now become necessities, and methods for their preparation had to be devised. This led to
incalculable research in organic chemistry. In fact, it is hardly too much to say that the basis for most of the development in organic chemistry since 1856 lies in Perkin’s discovery of mauve.

Industry has not been the only benefactor. It will be remembered that using the dye, methylene blue, as a staining agent, Koch discovered the bacilli of tuberculosis and cholera. And coal-tar dyes are today used in every histological and bacteriological laboratory.

So rapid had been the progress of the industry that in 1861, Perkin who, though only 23, was already recognized as the leading English authority, was asked by the Chemical Society to lecture on coloring matters derived from coal-tar, and on this occasion the great Michael Faraday, who was present, warmly congratulated Perkin upon his fine lecture.


In 1866 he was elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society.


In 1874 Perkin sold his factory, and from henceforth devoted himself exclusively to pure research.[...]  What led him to give up the factory and to devote himself exclusively to pure science was sheer love of the subject. It is the type of love which, when associated with genius, has led to the world’s greatest literary and artistic productions.

After 1874 Perkin moved to a new house in Sudbury, and continued to use the old one as the laboratory.

His research work from now on touched but lightly upon the dye situation. 
These researches culminated in the now classical Perkin’s Synthesis of unsaturated fatty acids- a group reaction which is studied by every student in chemistry today.

In 1870 Perkin was the recipient of the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, the other awards of the year going to Clausius, for his investigation of the Mechanical Theory of Heat, and Lecoq de Boisboudron, for the discovery of the element gallium.

Later Life
In 1881 Perkin turned his attention in an entirely new direction, that of the relationship between the physical properties and the chemical constitution of substances. Gladstone, Bruhl, and others were already busy connecting such physical manifestations as refraction and dispersion with chemical constitution. Perkin now introduced a third physical property, first discovered by Faraday: the power substances possess of rotating the plane of polarisation when placed in a magnetic field.

With this general topic Perkin was engaged to the year of his death. His work has thrown a flood of light upon the constitution of almost every type of organic compound, some, such as acetoacetic ester and benzene, being of extraordinary fascination to every chemist.

There are chemists-and H. E. Armstrong is among them—who regard this phase of Perkin’s life work as his crowning achievement. If it has not received such general recognition as his earlier work, that is to be largely ascribed to a lack of knowledge of physics which prevailed among chemists until quite recently. However, even as far back as 1889 Perkin was presented with the Davy Medal of the Royal Society as a reward for his magnetic studies.

A passage from the Chemical Society's report is worth quoting: " . . . However highly your technical achievements be rated, those who have been intimately associated with you must feel that the example which you have set by your rectitude as well as by your modesty and sincerity of purpose is of chiefest value. That you should have been able, as a very young man, to overcome the extraordinary difficulties incident to the establishment of an entirely novel industry 50 years ago is a clear proof that you were possessed in an unusual degree of courage, independence of character, judgment, and resourcefulness; but even more striking is your return into the fold of scientific workers and the ardor with which you have devoted yourself to the prosecution of abstract physico-chemical inquiries of exceptional difficulty. In the account of your renowned master, Hofmann, you have stated that one of your great fears on entering into technical work was that it might prevent your continuing research work; that you should have felt such regret at such a period is sufficiently remarkable, and it must be a source of enduring satisfaction to you to know that your later scientific work deserves, in the opinion of many, to rank certainly no less than your earlier."

Perkin died on July 14,1907.

Aside from his scientific achievements, Perkin’s life was extremely uneventful. To him his science was his life, and he seems to have had no avocation. We find no romantic dash, no such many-sidedness, as characterised his great countryman, [..] A blameless Christian, a perfect gentleman, a fine type of the old conservative, he lived unobtrusively, worked quietly and intensively, worshipped God, and respected his neighbor. To us, living in days of turmoil and upheaval, such a personage already belongs to an age long past.

Perkin was twice married. His first wife was a daughter of the late Mr. John Lisset. Some years after her death he married a daughter of Mr. Herman Molwo. Mrs. Perkin, three sons, and four daughters, survive him.

His sons are all noted chemists.


Like that other grand Englishman, Darwin, Perkin, the genius, begot Perkins of genius. Not always are the Gods so kind to the
children of geniuses:



To some people the chemical industry and process chemical dyes may not seem like an important or exciting thing to be part of, which is fair enough 'each to his own' and all that, but there's no denying that colours themselves have an impact on human emotion and thought.  Just think of the emotions that you experience, and the thoughts that pop into your head when you see colours in everyday situations (e.g. on clothes, on cars, on packaging for your cornflakes etc).  This shows the influence that colours can have on the way that people feel and think.  There are even studies that show colours have an effect on psychology (read the wikipedia entry on it HERE)

All of this variety in colour would not be possible without men like Perkin, who experimented, he tried things, he had enthusiasm, and had awareness of what he was doing.  The world would be a much duller place, in both visual and emotional terms, and more generally speaking, without chemical dyes and the dyeing industry that was established by William Perkin.



  1. Mentors hardly exist anymore. Always wished I had one.

  2. Mentors and apprenticeships are some of the ways of living that unfortnuately have declined over the past few generations. Hopefully it's only a short term thing.