Was Perkin's Mauve Dye an Accident? Chromatography Investigates
Jan 09 2017 Comments 0
A change in the fashion of Victorian England — and across Europe — in the 1860s, has been attributed to an ‘accidental’ discovery in chemistry. Suddenly the streets of London were alight with garments coloured a light shade of purple — mauve in fact. Such was the interest in the new dye, that at the Royal Exhibition of 1862 even Queen Victoria appeared in a silk gown that was dyed with the new dye.
But new research has hinted that there is more to the story of the new dye than has been traditionally thought. In fact, although the discovery might have been accidental, William Henry Perkin kept his method of producing the dye secret to stop the competition from cashing in. To understand why Perkin did this we need to look at dye and why his discovery was a real game changer in the manufacture of dyes.
From plants to quinine with Perkin
In 1850s England — and in other parts of the world — clothes were coloured using dyes produced from plants and other natural products. This was a labour-intensive process which contributed to the dyes being expensive. As well as being of limited colours, the dyes were not fast to washing and subsequently faded.
Perkin was working at the Royal College of Chemistry in London alongside the chemist August Hofmann. They were working on a problem that is still causing problems today — the curse of malaria. The goal of Hofmann and Perkin was to synthesize quinine — a synthesis that was not formally solved for another ninety years in the 1940s.
But during 1856, after a series of failed experiments at home to synthesize quinine, Perkin carried out some work to try and understand why he had failed. As he rinsed out his flask with alcohol to remove the black sludge he had produced, he noticed that a purple solution was formed. Further investigation revealed that the solution would dye silk and performed better than the commercially available dyes.
Mauvine — from the mallow flower
Perkin patented the new dye and then opened a factory to produce it for commercial use. He named the new dye mauvine — from the purple mallow flower. The dye changed the dying industry and was used for all sorts of things — from clothes to stamps. And it is the stamps — Victorian six pence lilac stamps analysed by Dr John Plater from the University of Aberdeen — that suggest Perkin might have hidden some of his manufacturing methods from his contemporaries to protect his process.
Dr Plater used liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry to analyse mauvine from different lilac stamps and identified differences in the mauvine Perkin patented and the mauvine Perkin’s factory manufactured. It seems that Perkin patented one method, but kept a better method secret to benefit his factory. The use of LC-MS is discussed in the article, Capillary Flow LC-MS Unites Sensitivity and Throughput.
Industrial espionage it seems is something even the Victorians worried about.
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