That was the task Perkin set himself in the Easter holidays. His home laboratory was primitive but he was methodical and curious. Investigating one of the residues resulting from his failed attempt to synthesise quinine, he found it had an intense purple colour. Others might have regarded it as a mere curiosity — it was not the first coloured residue to turn up in chemical experiments with coal tar. Perkin saw commercial potential. Hofmann was ambivalent: he was losing one of his most promising pupils, and losing him not to industrial chemistry but to entrepreneurship.
Indigo is a staple which has coloured the clothes of whole populations and generations; mauve was a fashion colour. When Perkin discovered his dye it was a novelty — there were shades like it, but none which dyed so much so well. Punch made jokes about it. The fashion passed as fashions will; it was the discovery that naturally occurring organic substances could be synthesised — and new ones invented — which mattered.
Garfield dips into some of these stories: quinine, for example, and coumarin, the first scent Perkin synthesised. The field is very wide, and he wanders over it without much sense of direction. There are asides on what a modern colour consultant to the fashion industry does, on the economic effects of malaria and on modern revivals of woad production. They are interesting enough subjects which doubtless deserve their own space, but they do not make up for a lack of what might have held a book about Perkin together — a sense of what it is like to do chemistry and how chemists think.
I can see that the task is difficult. Chemistry has not produced its equivalent of Gould or Feynman to make popular science of it or, if it has, I have failed to find them. The only writer I know who makes chemistry intellectually exciting for the lay reader is Primo Levi, but, although he writes wonderfully about learning chemistry and the routine work of industrial analysis, he has no reason to describe the history of chemical innovation. Garfield tries analogies — he drops in a recipe for Nesselrode pudding, for example.
One gets the point — doing organic chemistry is a bit like cooking — but it was an odd recipe to pick on, chosen, it would seem, because Proust mentions it. The instructions suggest that it is not a recipe like that for mayonnaise which requires delicate control of materials, temperatures and methods if disaster curdling, say is to be avoided. When philosophers try to separate the accidents of the physical world from its essences the first thing they discard is colour. We know it is unstable from one viewer to the next the colour blind, as well as the birds and the bees prove that.
It is easy to see colour as a commentary on a thing rather than as part of it. That is, perhaps, why dyes have mattered so much. They give information without affecting shape. The colours of their jerseys distinguish members of opposing teams. The gender of birds and the status of academics are signalled by the colour of their plumage.
Colour is not a precise language — it is black for mourning in some societies and white in others — but there are enough associations warm reds, ice greens for it to have a poetry of association. Black dyes have always been in demand. They are as close as you can get to no colour at all. Log In Register for Online Access.
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Mauve : how one man invented a colour that changed the world
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Simon Garfield : Mauve: How One Man Invented A Colour That Changed The World : Colour Theory
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Chemistry Best Science Books for Non-Scientists No current Talk conversations about this book. My first book by Simon Garfield.
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This is why I love Garfield so much. A slim but broad-reaching tale of the beginning of artifiical dyes. More chemistry than I cared for. If anyone epitomized the societal changes the Victorians hoped to make, it was William Perkin. You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data. William Perkin. August Wilhelm von Hoffman. George Fowler Perkin father. Thomas Dix Perkin brother. Heinrich Caro. Ivan Levinstein. Charles Chandler. George F. William J. George B. Hugo Schweitzer. Paul Ehrlich. Robert Koch. Ira Remsen.
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Friedlieb Runge. Robert Pullar. Thomas Perkin. Edward Bancroft. William Partridge. John Dalton. Lord Lyon Playfair. Edward Frankland. Frank Daubeny. Monsieur Mouy. Count Karl Vasilyvich. Patrick Heron. Laurence Morris. Thomas Keith. Thomas Dix Perkin. Hannah Harris. Ambrose Harris. Richard Owen. Napoleon III. Eugenie Montijo. Samuel Beeton. Charles Creed. Renard Freres. Crace Calvert. Madame Carette. Daniel Dollfus. Don Vidler.
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