Mauve shawl, 1862.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
This shawl, dyed with Perkin's mauve dye, was exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862. Sir William Perkin (1838-1907) accidentally discovered the formula for producing synthetic mauve dye (mauveine) in 1856, while trying to synthesise quinine, a cure for malaria. He attempted a synthesis based upon the addition of oxygen rather than water, selecting aniline, the simplest base available from coal tar, for his starting material. After oxidation, he found that he was left with a product which upon drying and treatment with methylated spirit, yielded an intense purple solution. In 1857, Perkin set up the first dyestuffs factory in Greenford, Middlesex, becoming the first person to manufacture organic chemicals on a large scale.