|William H. Perkin
Founder of Dyestuff Industry
As every school child knows today, the illuminating gas we use in our homes is largely obtained from the dry distillation of coal; but
many men and women even to-day are not aware that, in addition to illuminating gas, other products of far-reaching commercial
importance are also obtained from this same coal.
Among these, coal-tar stands out preeminently. Not so many years ago it was a waste and a nuisance; today it rivals the coal-gas in
From this dirty black tar, by a series of distillations, we get benzene and toluene and naphthalene and anthracene—to mention but
four important substances—which are the starting point for countless products of the dye and synthetic drug variety.
Out of benzene, for example, we can get aniline, and from the latter, Perkin, in 1856, obtained the first artificial dyestuff ever
produced. Born in England, the dye industry was reared and developed in Germany; and Germany owes much of its greatness, and
very much of its downfall to it. For the dye industry proved but a nucleus for many other related industries. Thus dyes gave rise to the
manu-facture of sulphuric and nitric acids and caustic soda; these in turn to artificial fertilizers, explosives and chlorine; and the
latter to poison gas with all its concomitants. The medicine in small doses and the poison in large; chlorine as an antiseptic and
chlorine as a destroyer—give them but the wrong twist, and man’s ingenuity becomes positively harmful.
Perkin was born in London in 1838. He was the youngest son of George Fowler Perkin, a builder and contractor, who had apparently
decided his son’s future before the latter had discarded his swaddling clothes. Perkin, Jr., was to be an architect.
But Perkin, Jr., had not yet decided for himself. Perhaps it was a street car conductor one day, a prime minister the next, and an
engine driver the third. And then again; watching his, father’s carpenters at work, he wished to become a mechanic of some kind;
and plans for buildings fired him with the ambition of becoming a painter.
In any case, in his thirteenth year he had an opportunity of watching some experiments on crystallization. It goes without saying that
he forthwith decided to be a chemist.
Were it not that about this time Perkin entered the City of London School, and there came in contact with one of the science
masters, Mr. Thomas Hall, this latest decision might have been as fleeting as his previous ones.
The City of London School, like all important educational institutions of the day, considered science as an imposter in the curriculum,
so that whilst Latin received a considerable slice of the day’s attention, poor little chemistry could be squeezed in only in the interval
set aside for lunch.
A few boys, and among them Perkin, were sufficiently interested to forego many of their lunches and watch “Tommy Hall” perform
Hall’s infectious personality made young Perkin all enthusiastic. He was going to be a chemist, and he was going to the Royal College
of Science, of which, and of its renowned chemical professor, Hall had told him much.
Hall’s earnest pleading finally overcame the father’s opposition, and in his fifteenth year Perkin entered the College. “Mr. W.
Crookes,”* the assistant, was the one immediately in charge.
The head professor was Hofmann, an imported product. So suggestive and illustrative were the great chemist’s lectures that, in the
second semester, Perkin begged and obtained permission to hear them once again.
In the laboratory Perkin was put through the routine in qualitative and quantitative chemistry, Bunsen’s gas analysis methods
serving as an appendix. This was followed by a research problem on anthracene, carried out under Hofmann’s direction, which
yielded negative results, but which paved the way for successful work later. His second problem on naphthylamine proved
somewhat more successful, and was subsequently published in the Chemical Journal—the first of more than eighty papers to
appear from his pen.
When but seventeen Perkin already had shown his mettle to such an extent that Hofmann appointed him to an assistantship. This
otherwise flattering appointment had, however, the handicap that it left Perkin no time for research. To overcome this, the
enthusiastic boy fixed up a laboratory in his own home, and there, in the evenings, and in vacation time, the lad tried explorations into
The celebrated experiment which was to give the 17-year-old lad immortality for all time was carried out in the little home laboratory
in the Easter vacation of 1856. It arose from some comments by Hofmann on the desirability and the possibility of preparing the
alkaloid, quinine, artificially.
*The late Sir W. Crookes.
Starting first with toluidine, and then, when toluidine gave unsatisfactory results, with aniline—both being products of coal tar—
Perkin treated a salt of the latter with bichromate of potash and obtained a dirty black precipitate.
Dirty, slimy precipitates had been obtained before and had, as a rule, been discarded as objectionable by-products. Perkin’s first
instinct to throw the “ rubbish “ away was overcome by a second, which urged him to make a more careful examination. And this
soon resulted in the isolation of the first dye ever produced from coal tar—the now well-known aniline purple or mauve.
A sample of the dye was sent to Messrs. Pullar, of Perth, with the request that it be tried on silk. “If your discovery does not make
the goods too expensive, it is decidedly one of the most valuable that has come out for a long time ...” was the answer. Trials on
cotton were not so successful, mainly because suitable mordants were not known. This second result some-what dampened the
enthusiasm of our young friend.
Nevertheless, Perkin decided to patent the process, and, if possible, to improve the product, as well as to find improved means of
Full of hope and courage, the young lad had decided to stake his future on the success or failure of this enterprise. He was going to
leave the Royal College of Science, and with the financial backing of his father—who seems to have had a sublime faith in his son’s
ability—he was going to build a factory where the dye could be produced in quantity.
Hofmann was shown the dye and was told of the resolution. The well-meaning professor, who seemed to have had more than a
passing fondness for the lad, tried all he could to persuade Perkin against any such undertaking. And let it be added that in that day,
to any man with any practical common sense, Perkin’s venture seemed doomed from the start.
A site for the factory was obtained at Greenford Green, near Harrow, and the building commenced in June, 1857.
“At this time,” wrote Perkin years later, “neither I nor my friends had seen the inside of a chemical works, and whatever knowledge I
had was obtained from books. This, however, was not so serious a draw-back as at first it might appear to be; as the kind of
apparatus required and the character of the operations to be performed were so entirely different from any in use that there was but
little to copy from.”
The practical difficulties Perkin had to overcome were such that, in comparison, the actual discovery of the dye seems a small
affair. Since most of the apparatus that was required could not be obtained, it had first to be devised, then tested, and finally applied.
Nor was this alL Raw materials necessary for the manufacture of the dye were as scarce as some rare elements are today. Aniline
itself was little more than a curiosity, and one of the first problems was to devise methods of manufacturing it from benzene.
The country was searched high and low for benzene. Finally Messrs. Miller and Co., of Glasgow, were found to be able to supply
Perkin with some quantity, but the price was $1.25 a gallon, and the quality so poor that it had to be redistilled.
Now the first step in the conversion of benzene to aniline was to form nitrobenzene, and this required nitric and sulphuric acids in
addition to benzene. Here again the market did not offer a nitric acid strong enough for the purpose. This had first to be
manufactured from Chili saltpeter and oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), and special apparatus had to be devised.
Bechamp’s discovery three years earlier, that nitrobenzene could be converted into aniline by the action of finely divided iron and
acetic acid was now developed for industrial use, and here again special apparatus had to be devised.
Today the most fundamental operations in every dye factory are nitration — the conversion, say, of benzene to nitrobenzene---and
reduction—the conversion of nitro-benzene to aniline. The mode of procedure, the technique, the apparatus—all are based on the
work of this eighteen-year-old lad. Only those who have attempted to repeat on an industrial scale what has been successfully
carried out in the laboratory on a small scale, will appreciate the difficulties to be overcome, and the extraordinary ability that Perkin
must have possessed to have overcome them. Think of a Baeyer who synthesized indigo in his university laboratory, and then think
of the twenty years of continuous labor that was required before the Badische Anilin Fabrik, with its hundreds of expert chemists
and mechanics, was in a position to produce indigo in quantity. And it would have taken them and others much longer but for the
pioneer work of young Perkin.
Some have described Perkin’s discovery as accidental. Perhaps it was. But consider the way it was perfected and made available;
consider with what extraordinary ability every related topic was handled; consider how every move was a new move, with no
previous experience to guide him; and who but one endowed with the quality of genius could have overcome all this? Hertz
discovered the key to wireless telegraphy, but Marconi brought it within reach of all of us; Baeyer first synthesized indigo, but the
combined labors of chemists in the largest chemical factory in the world were necessary before artificial indigo began to compete
with the natural product; Perkin both isolated the first artificial dyestuff and made it useful to man.
In less than six months aniline purple—“Tyrian purple“ it was at first called—was being used for silk dyeing in a Mr. Keith’s dye-
house. The demand for it became so great that many other concerns in England, and particularly in France, began its manufacture.
In France it was renamed “mauve,” and “mauve“ it has remained to this day.
Perkin’s improvements continued uninterruptedly, and his financial success grew beyond all expectations. He found that the uneven
color often obtained in dyeing on silk could be entirely remedied by dyeing in a soap bath. The use of tannin as one of the mordants
made it applicable to cotton, and shades of various kinds and depths of any degree could be attained without any difficulty. A
process for its use in calico printing was also worked out successfully.
When, three years later, Verguin discovered the important magenta—or, as it is sometimes called, fuchsine —and later still
Hofmann, his rosaniline, various details in the manufacture of mauve and its application to silk, cotton and calico printing, were
Young Perkin had given tremendous impetus to research in pure and applied chemistry. In the preparation of dyes, substances
which had, until then, been curiosities, had now become necessities, and methods for their preparation had to be devised. This led to
incalculable research in organic chemistry. In fact, it is hardly too much to say that the basis for most of the development in organic
chemistry since 1856 lies in Perkin’s discovery of mauve.
Industry has not been the only benefactor. It will be remembered that using the dye, methylene blue, as a staining agent, Koch
discovered the bacilli of tuberculosis and cholera. And coal-tar dyes are today used in every histological and bacteriological
So rapid had been the progress of the industry that in 1861, Perkin who, though only 23, was already recognized as the leading
English authority, was asked by the Chemical Society to lecture on coloring matters derived from coal-tar, and on this occasion the
great Michael Faraday, who was present, warmly congratulated Perkin upon his fine lecture.
Such dimensions has the coal-tar industry assumed since then that in 1913, at one single factory, the Baeyer works, in Elberfeld,
Germany, there were employed 8,000 workman and 330 university trained chemists.
There’s hardly a thing that a man can name
Of use or beauty in life’s small game
But you can extract in alembic or jar
From the "physical basis" of black coal-tar-
Oil and ointment, and wax and wine,
And the lovely colors called aniline;
You can make anything from a salve to a star,
If you only know how, from black coal-tar.
In his little laboratory at the factory the various attempts made in improving the methods of manufacture were not the only time-
consuming factors. The chemical constitution of mauve and related dyes, as well as purely organic questions not in any way related
to dyes, also engaged Perkin’s attention, and he began to contribute what was to prove an uninterrupted stream of papers to the
Transactions of the Chemical Society. In 1866 he was elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society.
The year 1868 is memorable in the annals of chemistry as dating the first artificial production of alizarin, the important coloring
matter which until then had been obtained exclusively from the madder root. This great triumph was due to the labors of Graebe and
Liebermann. But the triumph for the time being was purely a scientific one. The process as worked out by these two chemists was
far too costly to compete with the method used in extracting the dye from the madder root.
The starting point to the artificial production of alizarin was anthracene, another important coal-tar product. It so happened that the
first piece of research Perkin had ever been connected with was related to anthracene, a topic taken upon the recommendation of
his teacher, Hofmann. Naturally, Graebe and Liebermann’s synthesis aroused his interest. He wished to find some method of
producing it at less cost.
In less than a year Perkin had solved the problem. A modification of the method dispensed with the use of bromine, which was very
costly. A patent was taken out in June, 1869, at about the same time that Perkin’s process bad been discovered quite independently
by Graebe, Liebermann and Caro.
Just as in the case of mauve, the supply of raw materials and the mastery of technical details, involved much labor and ingenuity.
To begin with, a constant and generous supply of anthracene was necessary. But where was this to be had? The tar distillers had
had no use for it, and had not troubled to separate it in the distillation of tar. Many, indeed, there were among them who did not even
know of its existence.
With the help of his brother, the various distillers in the country were visited and the method of isolating the anthracene from the tar
distillate was shown them. The promise that all anthracene thus obtained would be bought and generously paid for, assured the
Perkins of a plentiful supply.
The purification of the anthracene so obtained, the details of the entire process of manufacturing alizarin, and the types of apparatus
to be employed, were all exhaustively investigated. By the end of 1869 one ton of the coloring matter in the form of a paste had been
made. This was increased to 40 tons in 1870, and to 220 tons in 1871. Until 1873, when the Germans also began manufacturing it,
the Greenwood Green works were the sole suppliers.
In 1874 Perkin sold his factory, and from henceforth devoted himself exclusively to pure research.
Perkin exemplifies the type, more common than is often supposed, though one entirely beyond the comprehension of the average
business man, who loves the quiet pursuit of research beyond aught else. Perkin exploited his discovery solely with the view of
providing himself with an income, modest in the extreme, but sufficient for his extremely simple wants. To explore unknown fields at
leisure and to be freed from all money matters whilst doing so, were his aims.
When Perkin left the Royal College of Science at 17 he had this in mind. Financial insecurity may spur you on, but to give the very best
that is in you requires freedom from such burdens.
What led him to give up the factory and to devote himself exclusively to pure science was sheer love of the subject. It is the type of
love which, when associated with genius, has led to the world’s greatest literary and artistic productions.
After 1874 Perkin moved to a new house in Sudbury, and continued to use the old one as the laboratory.
His research work from now on touched but lightly upon the dye situation. Until 1881 it centered much around the action of acetic
anhydride on a group of organic compounds known as aldehydes. The first important result that was here achieved was the
synthesis of coumarin, an odorous substance found in the tonka bean. This was the first case of the production of a vegetable
perfume from a coal-tar product.
These researches culminated in the now classical Perkin’s Synthesis of unsaturated fatty acids- a group reaction which is studied
by every student in chemistry today.
In 1870 Perkin was the recipient of the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, the other awards of the year going to Clausius, for his
investigation of the Mechanical Theory of Heat, and Lecoq de Boisboudron, for the discovery of the element gallium. The president
addressed Perkin as follows:
“Mr. William Perkin has been, for more than twenty years, one of the most industrious and successful investigators of Organic
“Mr. Perkin is the originator of one of the most important branches of chemical industry, that of the manufacture of dyes from coal-
“Forty-three years ago the production of a violet-blue color by the addition of chloride of lime to oil obtained from coal-tar was first
noticed, and this having afterwards been ascertained to be due to the existence of the organic base known as aniline, the production
of the coloration was for many years used as a very delicate test for that substance.
“The violet color in question, which was soon afterwards also produced by other oxidizing agents, appeared, however, to be quite
fugitive, and the possibility of fixing and obtaining in a state of purity the aniline product which gave rise to it, appears not to have
occurred to chemists until Mr. Perkin successfully grappled with the subject in 1856, and produced the beautiful coloring matter
known as aniline violet, or mauve, the production of which, on a large scale, by Mr. Perkin, laid the foundation of the coal-tar color
"His more recent researches on anthracene derivatives, especially on artificial alizarine, the coloring matter identical with that
obtained from madder, rank among the most important work, and some of them have greatly contributed to the successful
manufacture of alizarine in this country.
"Among the very numerous researches of purely scientific interest which Mr, Perkin has published, a series on the hydrides of
salicyl and their derivatives may be specially referred to; but among the most prominent of his admirable investigations are those
resulting in the synthesis of coumarin, the odiferous principle of the tonquin bean and the sweet-scented woodstuff, and its
"The artificial production of glycocoll and of tartaric acid by Mr. Perkin conjointly with Mr. Duppa afford other admirable examples of
synthetical research. . . .
"It is seldom that an investigator of organic chemistry has extended his researches over so wide a range as is the case with Mr.
Perkin, and his work has always commanded the admiration of chemists for its accuracy and completeness, and for the originality
of its conception."
In 1881 Perkin turned his attention in an entirely new direction, that of the relationship between the physical properties and the
chemical constitution of substances. Gladstone, Bruhl, and others were already busy connecting such physical manifestations as
refraction and dispersion with chemical constitution. Perkin now introduced a third physical property, first discovered by Faraday:
the power substances possess of rotating the plane of polarisation when placed in a magnetic field.
With this general topic Perkin was engaged to the year of his death. His work has thrown a flood of light upon the constitution of
almost every type of organic compound, some, such as acetoacetic ester and benzene, being of extraordinary fascination to every
There are chemists-and H. E. Armstrong is among them—who regard this phase of Perkin’s life work as his crowning achievement.
If it has not received such general recognition as his earlier work, that is to be largely ascribed to a lack of knowledge of physics
which prevailed among chemists until quite recently. However, even as far back as 1889 Perkin was presented with the Davy Medal
of the Royal Society as a reward for his magnetic studies.
The year 1906 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the coal-tar industry, and the entire scientific world stirred itself to
do honor to the founder. A meeting was held on July 26 of that year at the Royal Institution in London, over which Prof. R. Meldola, the
president of the Chemical Society, presided, and those in attendance included some of the most distinguished representatives of
science in the world.
The first part of the meeting consisted in the presentation of his portrait (painted by A. S. Cope, A.R.A.) to the guest of the evening. A
bust of Perkin (executed by Mr. Pomeroy, A.R.A.) for the library of the Chemical Society, was next shown. In addition the chairman
stated that a fund of several thousand pounds had been collected for the endowment of chemical research in the name of "Sir
William Henry Perkin" (he had been knighted in the meantime).
Prof. Emil Fischer, president of the German Chemical Society, presented to Perkin the Hofmann Medal, which was accompanied with
this address: Die Deutsche Chemische Gesellschajt hat Herrn Dr. W. H. Perkin in London fur ausgezeichnete Leistungen auf dem
Gebiete der Organischen Chemie, im besonderen fur die Begrundung der Teerfarhen-Indusirie, den Hofmann-Preis verliehen. Berlin,
im Juli, 1906. Der Prasident: E. Fischer. DieSchriftfuhrer: C.Schotten, W. Will.
Prof. A. Haller, representing France, presented Perkin with the Lavoisier Medal, with this address: La Societe Chimique de Peris, a
l’occasion du Jubilee destine a celebrer la cinquantieme anniversaire de la decouverte de la premiere matiere colorants derivee de
la houille, et comme temoignage de haute estime pour ses travaux, est heureuse d'offrir au Dr. William Henri Perkin, Inventeur de la
Mauveine (1865}, sa Medaille de Lavoisier a l’effigie de celui qui fut l’un des premiers et des plus illustres applicateurs des
Sciences Chimiques a l'industrie et a la prosperite publiques. Le Secretaire-General: A. Behal. Le President de la Societe Chimique
de Paris: Armand Gautier. Juillet, 1906.
Addresses were also delivered by Dr. Baekeland, representing the chemists of America; Prof. Paul Friedlander, on behalf of the
scientific and technical chemists of Austria; Prof. P. van Romburgh, Holland; Prof. H. Rupe, Switzerland; Lord Kelvin, representing
the Royal Society; and Prof. Meldola, on behalf of the English Chemical Society.
A passage from the Chemical Society's report is worth quoting: " . . . However highly your technical achievements be rated, those
who have been intimately associated with you must feel that the example which you have set by your rectitude as well as by your
modesty and sincerity of purpose is of chiefest value. That you should have been able, as a very young man, to overcome the
extraordinary difficulties incident to the establishment of an entirely novel industry 50 years ago is a clear proof that you were
possessed in an unusual degree of courage, independence of character, judgment, and resourcefulness; but even more striking is
your return into the fold of scientific workers and the ardor with which you have devoted yourself to the prosecution of abstract
physico-chemical inquiries of exceptional difficulty. In the account of your renowned master, Hofmann, you have stated that one of
your great fears on entering into technical work was that it might prevent your continuing research work; that you should have felt
such regret at such a period is sufficiently remarkable, and it must be a source of enduring satisfaction to you to know that your
later scientific work deserves, in the opinion of many, to rank certainly no less than your earlier."
How much Perkin was appreciated in Germany, where the coal-tar industry had developed into such gigantic proportions, is shown
by the delegation that came from that country. There were Prof. Bernthsen, Dr. H. Caro and Dr. Ehrhardt, of the Badische Anilin and
Soda-Fabrik; Dr. Aug. Clemm, Herr R. Bablich, and Dr. E. Ullrich, Farbwerke, Meister, Lucius, und Bruning; Dr. Klingeman, Cassella
and Co., Prof. Carl Duisberg and Dr. Nieme, Farbenfabriken, Elberfeld, and Prof. Liebermann—in short, the cream of Germany's
industrial chemical fraternity.
And there were messages from Prof. Beilstein (Petrograd), Prof. Ciamician (Bologna), Prof. Canizzaro (Rome), Prof. Jorgensen
(Copenhagen), Prof. Takayama (Tokyo), Prof. Adolf Baeyer (Munich), Prof. J. W. Bruhl (Heidelberg), Prof. G. Lunge (Zurich), and
Prof. Hugo Schiff (Florence)— an international band of illustrious scholars.
In the autumn following the jubilee celebrations in London, Sir William Perkin accepted an invitation from the American Committee to
visit its shores. Various gatherings were held in his honor in New York, Boston, Washington, etc.
In New York a dinner was tendered him at Delmonico’s, with the veteran Prof. Chandler, of Columbia, in the chair. Dr. W. H. Nichols
presented him with the first impress of the Perkin Medal, since awarded annually to the American chemist who has most
distinguished himself by his services to applied chemistry; and Dr. W. P. Hillebrand, president of the American Chemical Society,
presented the diploma of honorary membership of the society to the guest of the evening. Other speakers included President Ira
Remsen of Johns Hopkins, Prof. Nernst of Berlin, and Dr. W. H. Wiley, chief chemist of the Dept. of Agriculture, Washington.
Perkin died on July 14,1907.
Aside from his scientific achievements, Perkin’s life was extremely uneventful. To him his science was his life, and he seems to
have had no avocation. We find no romantic dash, no such many-sidedness, as characterised his great countryman, Ramsay, for
example. With modesty carried to me extreme, only the privileged few knew anything of the man, and even Prof. Meldola, an intimate
friend of many years’ standing, could give but few personal touches of the man in his otherwise excellent obituary address,
delivered to the members of the Chemical Society. “... I thank God, to whom I owe everything, for all His goodness to me, and ascribe
to Him all the praise and honor.” This was Perkin’s review of his life in 1906. A blameless Christian, a perfect gentleman, a fine type
of the old conservative, he lived unobtrusively, worked quietly and intensively, worshipped God, and respected his neighbor. To us,
living in days of turmoil and upheaval, such a personage already belongs to an age long past.
Perkin was twice married. His first wife was a daughter of the late Mr. John Lisset. Some years after her death he married a
daughter of Mr. Herman Molwo. Mrs. Perkin, three sons, and four daughters, survive him.
His sons are all noted chemists. One of them, Arthur George, is a technical expert, and another, William Henry, is professor of
chemistry at Oxford. This Oxford professor is without doubt the foremost organic chemist in England today. His work on polymethyl-
enes, alkaloids, camphor, terpenes, etc., is of the highest order.
Like that other grand Englishman, Darwin, Perkin, the genius, begot Perkins of genius. Not always are the Gods so kind to the
children of geniuses:
To great ends and projects had thy life been given;
Right well and nobly has the goal been won;
For this, O Great Discoverer, thou hast striven;
Take, then, our thanks, for all that thou hast done.
(Nora Hastings,—dedicated to Perkin.)
Much of the biographical material has been supplied by Perkin himself in his Hofmann Memorial Lecture (1). Prof. Meldola’s
appreciative article (2) is largely based on this, though valuable additional material, particularly that relating to the technical
development of Perkin’s dye, is to be found here. The Jubilee volume (3) contains interesting items. Perkin’s scientific papers were
published in the Journal of the Chemical Society (London).
1. W. H. Perkin: The Origin of the Coal-Tar Industry, and the Contributions of Hofmann and his Pupils. Journal of the Chemical Society
(London), 69,556 (1886).
2. Raphael Meldola: Perkin Obituary Notice. Journal of the Chemical Society (London), 9J, 2214 (1908).
3. R. Meldola, A. G. Green, and J. C. Cain: Jubilee of the Discovery of Mauve and of the Foundation of the Coal-Tar Color Industry by Sir
W. H. Perkin. (Printed by G. E. Wright, at the Times Office, London, and published by the Perkin Memorial Committee, 1906
|Apparatus used by Perkin in his researches on the optical activity and chemical constitution of substances.
Reproduced from the Journal of the Chemical Society (London)
William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) in his laboratory.
Photo: Image No. 10419352 of the Science and
Society Picture Library. Copyright of Science
Museum (London) and used with permission.
This biography is reproducted from Benjamin Harrow, Eminent Chemists of Our Time, D. van Nostrand Co., 1920, pp. 1-18:
|Brook, Simpson & Spiller was the successor company to William H. Perkin's dye manufacturing firm.
The Chemical Trade Journal, 1895