William Henry Perkin -Read About The Father of Color | Biography

Sir William Henry Perkin is a British chemist who takes credit for discovering the synthetic dye mauveine. He is considered the father of the synthetic dye and perfume industry. A mistake that he did when he was a student of the Royal College of London, became a world discovery and today we see the color purple somewhere or the other around us. Made from aniline, the organic dye mauveine became a major hit when his actual attempt was towards the chemical synthesizing of quinine as a treatment for malaria. 

The discovery was done by Sir William Henry Perkin at the very young age of 18. He then, later, on gave a huge contribution to the industry of fashion and the growth and expansion of the field make a remarkable entry by this entrepreneur’s dye industrial factory. Thus, William Perkin is an inspiration towards many for revolutionizing the world of fashion with his amazing accidental discovery of the synthetic dye.


Early Years and Personal Life of William Perkin 

William Henry Perkin

Sir William Henry Perkin was born o 12th March of 1838 at the East End of London, England. He was the 7th last and the youngest son for his successful carpenter father George Perkin, who had a fairly wealthy lifestyle. He had Sarah, a Scottish descendent as his mother, who had moved to East London at her young ages. 

William Perkin had a baptism done in the Anglican parish church of St Paul’s, Shadwell which was popular for its connected famous personalities such as Jane Randolph who was the mother of Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley, James Cook, and a lot more people. 

Perkin joined the City of London School and was taught by Thomas Hall, who had fostered a scientific skill and talent to the 14-years-old and had encouraged him a lot to pursue a career itself inside the chemistry fields. 

In the year 1853, William Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London, at a very age of 15, where he studied under August Wilhelm Von Hofmann. He was a revered German chemist who researched and contributed to the studies about the famous aniline and its features. While Perkin was working as a laboratory assistant in Hofmann’s laboratory, he was about to undertake the synthesis of quinine. He instead accidentally got a bluish substance with an excellent property for dyeing. This later came to be called the aniline purple, Tyrian purple, or mauve. 


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Concerning his family, Sir William Henry Perkin married Jemima Harriet who was the daughter of John Lissett, in the year 1859. Arthur George Perkin and William Henry Perkin Junior were the 2 sons born to the couple. He had a second marriage with Alexandrine Caroline the daughter of Helman Mollwo in the year 1866. They also gave birth to a child named Frederick Mollwo Perkin and had 4 daughters. 


A Fortunate Accident as a Discovery

William Henry Perkin- Discovery

In the process of synthesizing quinine, Sir William Henry Perkin and his professor August Wilhelm Von Hofmann were arranging a few chemical compounds which, at that time, were not even fully established in their inventions.  So, trying to achieve an inexpensive natural substance as the treatment for malaria, during the time of Easter vacation, William Perkin still worked from his crude laboratory from his apartment’s top floor in Cable Street at East London. This was the time he accidentally exposed something. 

Sir William Henry Perkin discovered a purple color substance formed when aniline is partly transformed into a crude mixture which was extracted from alcohol. Due to his keen personal interest for photography and arts, William Perkin along with his brother Thomas and his friend Arthur Church undertook further experimentation over this accident. Since this was not intended to be researched, the trio carried out their scientific experiments in a small hut present in Perkin’s garden so as to maintain secrecy from his professor Hofmann. 

Mauveine was the term they named for this dye which they had ideas to commercialize and expose it to the clothing industry. Further researching the trio also found out that it dyed silk well in a way which could be stable when exposed under sunlight or even washed with water. They sent some of their secret project samples to a dye works in Perth, Scotland and received a promising note from Robert Pullar who was the general manager there. Sir William Henry Perkin thus filed for a patent on August 1856, when he was only 18 years.

Only certain lichens, bat guano, and molluscs could provide with the purple dye ‘Tyrian Purple’ and so the dyes which were extracted from these natural substances were particularly expensive in cost. Purple was also at the same time was seen as the symbol color of prestige and aristocracy. William Perkin and his brother thus realized that they have found out a good substitute for this tough and costly extraction method through mauveine.   

Discovery that Turned into a Triumph 


Fortunately, it was the time of the Industrial Revolution in England and so successful commercialization of the dye could reach heights through the textile industries. Still, Perkin was facing a few hardships where he has to raise funds for the manufacturing of the dye cheaply and also make it adaptable to the cotton industry, to gain acceptance among all the local and commercial dyers to create a source of public demand.  And so, Sir William Henry Perkin invented a mordant which is a dye fixative for cotton and he opened his own dyeing industry through persuading his father and brothers to the partnership with him. Perkin then gained some exposure luckily for his time and slowly he became rich in his own way.


It was also a time of fashion with the effect of the crinoline or hooped-skirt that involves a large quantity of clothing. Community claims were increasing drastically when a parallel shade was implemented by Queen Victoria of Great Britain and also by the Empress Eugénie, who was the wife of Napoleon III, in France. But time on his side, William Perkin after his accidental discovery of the purple dye mauveine, many fresh aniline dyes invented and industrial units fabricating them were assembled across the states of Europe. Following his success, William Perkin was knighted for the 50th anniversary of his discovery in the year 1906. 


Last Years of Sir William Henry Perkin


Sir William Henry Perkin took his business retirement at the age of 36 by selling his companies so that he could concentrate and devote himself totally to research explorations. This had its early investigations of the skill of certain organic elements to rotate plane-polarized light, an asset useful when considering interrogations of its molecular structure. William Perkin enjoyed his childhood hobby of playing musical instruments in his later life.


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Continuous travel experiences of Perkin during the 1960s, took a toll over his health. Sir William Henry Perkin expired at his age of 69 on July 14th in the year 1907, at his home in Harrow, London due to double pneumonia and his appendix had a burst.  He was then properly buried in the churchyard of Christ Church, in Harrow. The second wife of William Perkin, Alexandrine and their daughter Sacha along with son Frederick were also buried lately after their deaths. The risk-taking nature and the true symbolization of prestigious endeavour takes credit to the colour of purple and thanks for the ultimate minds of Sir William Henry Perkin for this accidental success. 


Awards and Recognitions Honoured


Sir William Henry Perkin has gained a lot of rewards and honours for his amazing contributions. In June 1886, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1879 he got his Royal Medal and 2 years later, in 1889 he received his Davy Medal.  William Perkin was a Liveryman of the ‘Leathersellers’ Company’ for about extensive 46 years and was thus elected as the ‘Master of the Company’ for the year 1896–97. 

On the day of his 50th mauveine anniversary, William Perkin was awarded the first SCI Perkin Medal. Today, the U.S. industrial chemical units and the Society of Chemical Industry recognize this medal as one of their biggest honors and reward it annually to the deserved.  


Facts To Know About Sir William Henry Perkin 


  • The sons of Sir William Henry Perkin, adding both his first and second wife’s children, had all became chemists in their fields.


  • Google Doodle remembered Sir William Henry Perkin on his 180th birthday anniversary with a vibrant purple ribbon-like doodle on 12th March of 2018. 


  • The discovery of Amino acid, Tartaric acid, Alizarin, Coumarin, Salicyl Alcohol, etc. all goes credits for Sir William Henry Perkin.  


  • Other than chemistry, the young boy William Perkin was also interested in engineering, arts, photography, science, etc. 


  • During the time of the Industrial Revolution, after the success of his mauveine, Sir William Henry Perkin still innovated new other dyes. 


  • The chemical dyes given by Sir William Henry Perkin had also paved the way for new medical ideas. For instance, the previously invisible bacilli were then stained with his dye for observing various bacteria for tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and helped in finding good medical aids for treating them.   


  • The Royal Exhibition of 1862 was notably seen by Queen Victoria herself, for wearing a long gown which was mauveine-dyed completely in purple. 


  • Blue Plaques marks the Cable Street of Perkin’s home to the junction with King David Lane and Greenford’s Perkin Factory. 


  • William Perkin was proficient in playing the piano, double bass, and violin and, seeing on the other phase he loves to travel a lot and relaxes at times with gardening.  


  • Above than being a chemist and scientist, Sir William Henry Perkin was a great human being who had donated a lot of charities to homes during his lifetime.


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