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I Am Curious (Purple)

Admit it: When you were a kid, you thought about inventing a new color. You were probably doing the usual crayon thing—green grass, blue sky, red dragster—and you came to the point where you just ran out. You thought having all 72 crayons would help, but it didn’t. For one thing, the box lies. Yes, there are 72 crayons, but 72 colors? Not unless you think Crayola green-blue is different from Crayola blue-green, and what self-respecting kid is going to split that kind of hair?

As you eventually found out—probably from some asshole grown-up bent on quashing your youthful dreams before they were fully formed—the roadblock to discovering a new color is not finding a new crayon but finding more light. Humans see a relatively limited visual spectrum. Barring the removal of your corneas, which would open up the spectrum by eliminating the ultraviolet filtering effects of the lens, you’re stuck. Every new crayon is a crystallized piece of what is possible.

Ah, but this was not always the way, says Simon Garfield in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World. Although the fundamentals of color theory are unchanging, rainbows cannot be harvested. Until the chemical revolution set off by the invention of mauve, relatively few colors were available in a stable enough form to be converted to commercial purposes. The theoretical big box of crayons had hundreds of practical gaps. Dye manufacturers were stuck with very few natural colors—black-blue from the indigo plant, rosy-red from madder root, yellow-orange from saffron flowers, scarlet from cochineal insects, and a few others.

Then, in 1956, came mauve, the first new color suitable for use as a dye in a generation. The inventor, William Perkin, found it while fooling around in a college chemistry lab with a carbon-rich tar made from distilled coal.

Mauve’s cover shows a portrait of the elderly Perkin in his laboratory, holding a piece of fabric stained in the shade of reddish-purple he had discovered. It suggests, like the rather similar cover of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, the story of a lifetime doggedly pursuing scientific success in the face of jeers and economic hardship—fighting a good fight that finally ends in triumph only when the hero reaches an advanced age. One can guess that this is the story Garfield wishes he could tell—he emphasizes conflict and roadblocks at every opportunity—but whereas Perkin and Sobel’s John Harrison (the inventor of the marine chronograph) were both Brits, there are no other similarities between Harrison’s Herculean effort and Perkin’s fortuitous discovery.

Mauve was not the first color discovered in coal-tar derivatives, but Perkin was the first to guess that the new color might have economic value. He dyed various fabrics and tested his discovery for light-fastness. Perkin’s father, George, who had found financial success as a master carpenter, “strongly disapproved” of the young man’s interest in chemistry, insists Garfield—but obviously not so strongly as to withhold financial support for his son’s specialized education. Ultimately, in fact, George Perkin risked his entire fortune to build a factory to manufacture the new dye. The younger Perkin left university barely after entering it to pursue the possibilities of his invention, and in four years, the family was rich beyond dreams of avarice.

Obviously, it wasn’t quite as simple as that; but Garfield’s discussion of the difficulties of turning an accident in a beaker into a manufacturing process is perfunctory enough to be replaced by the words “Two years later” if Mauve were ever made into a movie. It is a testament to Garfield’s ability as a storyteller that he manages to turn a ho-hum tale of overnight success into a fairly engaging 200 pages. However, he does so by including quite a bit of padding, which creates a sometimes jarring read. I found myself wondering if there really are extant records of 19th-century dye merchants describing how to tell “if a color is taking off,” before realizing—whoops—that the narrative had switched to the modern era.

However 19th-century dye merchants might have put it, mauve did take off. It quickly became a favorite on the runways of Paris, which then, as now, led the fashion world. Mauve was also quickly adapted as a dye for paper. Garfield paraphrases Punch:

London [is] in the grip of the Mauve Measles, an affliction “spreading to so serious an extent that it is high time to consider by what means it may be checked….” [It is] mostly women who [are] afflicted, for any symptoms in men [can] usually be treated “with one good dose of ridicule.”

If the Perkin story leaves something to be desired, Garfield compensates in addressing the real star of the story—mauve itself—and the development of thousands of additional artificial dyes in its wake. Perkin’s discovery, along with the logistical and legal difficulties of enforcing patents at the time, led to the explosive creation of a European dye industry—natural-dye production was a primarily Asian enterprise. Soon, knockoffs of Perkin’s original purple and additional carbon-derived hues were being produced across the continent, particularly in England, Germany, and France.

Whereas chemistry had theretofore been the exclusive purview of toffee-nose intellectuals, Perkin’s discovery opened up the field to ambitious young men who focused their energies on industrial applications of carbon research. And carbon proved worthy of the attention. The manipulations in the century since have led to thousands of useful compounds, including artificial quinine—the only effective treatment against malaria in the 1800s. Carbon dyes continue to find new uses. Some are now employed as antibiotics, either by themselves or in conjunction with light radiation.

If Mauve fails the reader, it is because the author is just a little bit too in love with his subjects—both Perkin and the color. He spends too much time on the accolades paid to the elderly Perkin by his colleagues and assures us that his discovery was not the result of happenstance but the inevitable product of genius. Maybe, but such an assertion is hardly obvious from the evidence Garfield presents. Although Perkin developed two additional dye colors, this accomplishment seems trivial in light of the fact that his process was to eventually provide thousands of different shades, and other new carbon compounds were to permeate all aspects of human life. He spent most of his life in futile attempts to derive artificial quinine from coal derivatives—a goal that was ultimately achieved by others. And, though Perkin was on the right track, the inspiration was not his own but August Hoffman’s, his professor at the Royal College—who had speculated that the process was possible seven years before Perkin entered school.

For this reason, Garfield’s belief that Perkin deserves a share of the credit for all subsequent carbon-based discoveries seems born more of affection than reality. Indeed, fuscine, another aniline dye, invented almost simultaneously in France by Emmanuel Verguin, sold in much higher quantities than mauve. It was likely an independent discovery, though Garfield tries to show a connection, using the same sort of friend-of-a-friend coincidences that “prove” Lee Harvey Oswald really worked for the FBI. Perhaps the only difference between a clever lad and a genius is a rich father—or a fawning biographer.

If Garfield doesn’t quite recognize the chemical context of Perkin’s discovery, he completely ignores the color context. Whereas mauve’s impact on fashion is unquestionable, that was hardly the only frontier being opened. The development of cadmium pigments for artist’s colors throughout the 1800s drove the impressionist movement and then modernism. Supersaturated yellows, and later reds, exploded off the canvases of Monet and his followers (while encouraging just as many ghastly sunrise landscapes). But the cads were just the most dazzling of the new colors. Cobalt blue was introduced in 1820, chromium green in 1862, modern ultramarine—a replacement for the original pigment, made of ground lapis lazuli—in 1828. There were others: Alizarin crimson—the only coal-tar derivative considered permanent enough for painting—was introduced in 1868. Most of these colors, unlike mauve, are inorganic, but they are still the result of laboratory discoveries turned into industrial products.

If, as Garfield suggests, life looked a lot brighter in the second half of the 1800s, Perkin’s invention was only one of many reasons. And we can all be glad that subsequent dye technology has advanced to the point that mauve is less frequently used today. As limited as my options are, there are a lot of crayons I’ll pull out before that one. CP