on 13 December 2000
I found "Mauve" absolutely fascinating, not least for the remarkable chain of events that followed Sir William Henry Perkin's work on aniline dyes. Having been absorbed by this excellent book, I found it rather sad that even now, with so many 20th Century developments arising from Sir William's discoveries, such an unsung hero should still be relatively anonymous and even his final resting place cannot be found.
By a rather nice coincidence, though not related to Sir William, my father, Philip Perkin, worked in colour chemistry and industrial pigment production for over forty years in the North of England and would often return home with clothes spattered with every hue imaginable, just like his namesake !!
Mauve is a must-read for those intrigued to know how an apparently innocuous laboratory development led to the establishment of today's global chemical industry and changed our world, in so many ways, forever.
on 9 October 2001
If, like me, you always thought chemistry was boring, think again! This book manages to make the subject of manufactured dyes interesting: describing the competition to invent new dyes, and the developments following on from Perkin's discovery in vivid prose.
"Mauve" follows on from the ground best trod by Sobel with "Longitude", and may not be as gripping, but "Mauve" is certainly one of the better popular science books I've read.
on 15 September 2000
Mauve is almost impossible to categorize. It is part biography, part science history, part medical history and part fashion book. It tells the story of Sir William Perkin, the man who discovered the first artificial dye - mauve - in the 1850s. The colour was a sensation at the time, but was even more remarkable for what it led to - particularly the advances in medicine such as the study of chromosomes and the subsequent conquest of disease such as tuberculosis. Mauve was discovered by Perkin when he was 18 by mistake, when he was looking for a way of making quinine. The book ends with the eventual discovery of articial quinine many years later. I especially liked the way Simon Garfield interweaves the past and present story. It's a remarkable and I think untold tale of how one colour achieved so much, and it will make you think about all colours in a totally different light.
on 28 February 2011
Chemistry. A boring subject for nerds, right? I used to think so, that's why I dropped it as soon as I could and ended up as a historian, only to return to it in my professional life as the editor of a magazine about it. If this book had been around 30 years ago, I might have thought differently.
'Mauve' is a terrifically entertaining and informative read, everything a good non-fiction book should be. It tells the story of how Sir William Perkin 'sort of accidentally' discovered the first true synthetic dyestuff while trying to synthesise quinine and in the process not only made his own fortune but kick-started modern industrial chemistry as well, debatably the whole modern world. It wasn't a complete accident - people had been on the lookout for artificial colours that could be made cheaply at large scale for years - and reflected the work of an enquiring mind in a subject then dismissed as of no real importance.
Many of the themes still echo today. The process was discovered in Britain but developed further and made better in Germany, which then steamrollered the British dyestuffs industry into oblivion. It's all gone to India, now, of course. And if you think short-termism, a focus on shuffling money about, a sniffiness about innovation and lack of government support for industry and entrepreneurs is a modern disease, think again; they were very much there in the 19th century too.
Also very much echoing today is the downside of chemicals. They are dangerous in the wrong hands and much of this went pell-mell into products that exposed people to real danger. Just like today, the industry was often arrogant and defensive about it, while the popular press raised hysteria with no sense of proportion. And how typical of Britain that we know so little about this man and that it took considerable work to even locate his grave.
An excellent book, as illuminating in its way as the beautiful purple dye that colonised our streets for a couple of surreal years in the 1860s. Find it.
on 26 February 2016
Before he wrote about maps and fonts, Simon Garfield wrote about dyes, mauve especially. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World was a joy to read. I should know this by now about Simon Garfield. Yet who would have thought that anyone could have made a book about dyes exciting? I read half of this book in one sitting (okay, I was on a plane en route to Fort Lauderdale at the time). Natural dyes have been around for centuries, yet the first mass-produced artificial dye wasn't a primary red or blue, but in fact mauve. Why mauve?
William Perkin was a young British chemist who liked to experiment. It was during one such lab trial in an attempt to synthesize quinine in 1856 that he came upon a mauve residue. Perkin, at only eighteen years of age, had discovered a way to synthesize a colour using coal tar. The light purple that he produced was a hit all over Europe:
"And then two things happened to change his life. Queen Victoria wore mauve to her daughter's wedding; and Empress Eugénie, the single most influential woman in the world of fashion, decided that mauve was a colour that matched her eyes."
And so the fashion trend raged. Garfield included many vibrant photos in a colorful insert, showing the fashions of the times as well as Perkin's earliest dyes. One of the photo captions said:
"An object of ridicule, an object of pride: gaudy, fugitive and poisonous, but the new colours proved irresistible to fashionable Paris and London."
Poisonous? Arsenic was used in the creation of the dyes and while it remained entirely safe on dry fabric, once the wearer perspired or got caught in the rain, the toxicity became manifest. Skin irritations were widespread and even fatalities occurred. Tests were conducted on the safety of the dyes yet the various tests produced alarmingly contrasting results. It all depended on who conducted the tests, of course. Nevertheless, the official verdict was inconclusive on the dyes' degree of toxicity. Factories in the mid-nineteenth century also risked polluting the water with their toxic discharge; Garfield wrote about wells which had become contaminated and the lawsuits that ensued against the companies.
Garfield could make a book about the history of the first synthetic dye a can't-put-down read. Humour always makes a book a page-turner and the early history of dye experimentation was a hazard waiting to happen:
"'The nitration of benzene is not, of course, a process free from all danger,' Laurence Morris noted subsequently, 'and in those early, groping stages of manufacture it is a miracle that Perkin did not blow himself and Greenford Green to pieces.'"
A major part of Mauve was Perkin's battle with patents and dealing with foreign companies who produced inferior copycat dyes, or companies that used his breakthroughs and improved upon them. Perkin found that he could not keep up with the dyeworks on the European continent, and instead of battling with them in court over patent violations, the father of synthetic dyes sold his company to a competitor. This did not seem to irk Perkin; he was happy to let others reap the profits while he kept to his small lab working on his own projects.
It would have surprised Perkin to learn that his experiments with dyes led to many breakthroughs in the field of medicine. Dyes are now used regularly to locate microbes and in exploratory tests. Chemotherapy owes its existence to dyes. The development of photographs onto paper is also based on dye science. Garfield made a case throughout Mauve to celebrate Perkin and give him the credit he deserved as the founding father of so many scientific breakthroughs. In the 160 years since the discovery of mauve, science has forgotten Perkin and despite the recognition he received in a 1906 golden anniversary commemoration and posthumously in a smaller remembrance on the mauve centenary, Perkin seems to be unknown to the scientific community of the twenty-first century. I was moved by the final paragraphs of Mauve, where Garfield, after unsuccessful attempts to find Perkin's gravesite, was contacted by Wendy Blewden. Blewden was Perkin's great-great-granddaughter, and knew where his grave was. The two shared an afternoon sharing stories and Garfield got to see many of the great scientist's personal possessions.
on 17 January 2011
This book was bought for my father who is interested in all things scientific. I looked at the past reviews and they did not let me down. He has told me the the book is fascinateing and a good read, and he was amazed at what this discovoury led to and how it has influenced the world we know. When my Mother has finsihed reading it, I am looking forward to finding out about mauve.