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Customer Review

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.
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