Perkin's Purple (1856)

The first synthetic dye was discovered by William Henry Perkin, a student at the Royal College of Chemistry. He was trying to make the drug quinine from aniline (a chemical found in coal). The experiment produced a thick dark sludge. Instead of throwing it away, Perkin tried diluting it with alcohol and found that the solution was purple. He discovered that it would dye silk and that it was a 'fast' dye, resistant to washing and to the fading effects of light.

This mixture had been seen before but it was Perkin who realised its commercial potential. He found customers for the new dye and, with money from his father, he set up his own dyemaking company to produce the beautiful purple dye.

Until this dye was discovered, a dress dyed purple could start fading within a few hours. By 1859 the dye, now known as mauve, or mauveine, had become the height of fashion in England. Queen Victoria wore a mauve dress at the International Exhibition of 1862 and a set of stamps (the penny mauve) was printed in 1881 in the same colour.

The success of the new dye encouraged other chemists to experiment in making more synthetic dyes made from coal products.