667: Mauve by Simon Garfield

by Gerard

667.25: Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. 195 pp. ISBN 0-571-20917-3.

The 600s (technology), much like the 300s (social sciences) is a hodge-podge class. Most of the divisions work fine. You have engineering, manufacturing, medicine, but then there’s a division on management and one on home economics. Luckily, today we’re looking at a book on chemical engineering, which is the 660s. There’s all kinds of chemical engineering—explosives (662), beverage chemistry (663), food chemistry (664), etc. Works on chemical engineering as applies to the fields of cleaning, color, coating, and related areas falls into 667.

Simon Garfield’s Mauve deals with the life and scientific career of Sir William Perkin (1838-1907). Born on London’s East End the youngest of seven children, Perkin went to the Royal College of Chemistry and excelled. While working in August von Hofmann’s lab at the age of 18, he was able to isolate the first aniline compounds from coal-tar, a byproduct of coal gas production. These aniline compounds were found to have properties similar to contemporary dyestuffs. The first such compound discovered was mauveine, and was the basis for a rich new purple dye which seemed to rival Tyrian purple in quality.

Perkin immediately filed a patent for his discovery and figured out how produce mauveine on a massive scale. This was in the midst of England’s Industrial Revolution and soon every commercial dyer was clamoring for Perkin’s new creations. He then set about finding synthetic versions of other natural compounds, eventually synthesizing coumarin, alizarin, and even new perfume chemicals. A shrewd businessman as well as a scientist, he knew when to get out of the business. After earning a healthy sum, he sold his chemical plant to new owners and retired in 1874. His work and publications led to an increase in industrial chemistry and helped pave the way for advances in medicine, food, perfumery, explosives, and photography.

This is about as exciting as anyone could make a book about chemical dyes and Victorian England. It had a great deal of contemporary sources that made it feel more like a novel than a history book. That being said, it wasn’t terribly absorbing either. It’s a book about a guy who was smart, invented something useful, made money and the right choices, and so, wasn’t filled with a lot of crisis moments. All in all, an interesting niche book.