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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

story:New science, new materials, new power

scene:New dyes

New dyes
Images with this text:
Women gathering female cochineal beetles. The beetles' bodies are dried to produce a natural red dye, 1845.
New dyes
Before 1856 all the dyes used to colour clothing, paint and print came from natural sources such as insects, molluscs, barks, flowers, roots, leaves and berries. The range of colours that could be produced was limited.
Dyeing was a well-established craft whose origins can be traced back to antiquity. The earliest written records refer to dyes used in China, Rome, Persia, India and Egypt. Methods used were painstaking and sometimes prohibitively expensive. Royal or Tyrian purple, for example, a colour derived from molluscs and originating in the Mediterranean, was exclusively worn by wealthy royalty.
Another animal-based dye was cochineal, a crimson dye derived from beetles living on cactus plants, discovered by pre-Columbian Indians. Vegetable dyes tended to be cheaper and more plentiful. The most common were madder and indigo, the ancient red and blue dyes used for cloth and cosmetics, while other important plant dyes included carthamus, woad, saffron, brazilwood and turmeric. In 1856 a chemist called William Perkin discovered how to mass produce colour in a factory and the synthetic dye industry was born.
Images with this text:
Women gathering female cochineal beetles. The beetles' bodies are dried to produce a natural red dye, 1845.
Mauve
In 1856 a young chemistry student, William Perkin, was trying to discover how to synthesise quinine, a cure for malaria. His attempt, using a coal tar product called aniline, failed. What he produced instead was a solution with an intense purple colour - the first ever synthetic dye.
Perkin realised that aniline purple, better known as mauveine, had great economic potential. He abandoned his studies and pursued his accidental discovery with youthful energy and opportunistic genius.
He patented mauveine and with the financial backing of his father built a factory on the banks of the Grand Union Canal in Greenford, West London. He produced the dye in industrial quantities for sale to the textile industry.
Mauveine was a huge success. In the 1860s the streets of London and Paris, the fashion capitals of Europe, were ablaze with Perkin's colour. At the Royal Exhibition of 1862 Queen Victoria gave it her seal of approval when she appeared in a silk gown dyed with mauveine.
Images with this text:
Mauve shawl, 1856.
William Perkin's factory at Greenford.
Perkin's original mauve dye.
A silk dress dyed with mauveine, 1870-73.
William Perkin, 1838-1907.
Aniline dyes
William Perkin's success with mauveine prompted other chemists to experiment with aniline. They created a rainbow of coloured dyes including aniline red, aniline blue and aniline violet.
Perkin himself produced two important new colours, 'Britannia Violet' and 'Perkin's Green' (it is said that the water in the Grand Union Canal turned a different colour depending on what dyes were being made that week).
Manufacturers soon found that colour novelty was a key factor in attracting consumers. As the chemical companies sought new colours and forged ever stronger links with research laboratories, scientists and engineers, science became irrevocably bound up with industry. It was in this context that the industrial research laboratory emerged.
As the range of aniline dyes grew, synthetics gradually took over from natural dyes. Pioneering science and the winning of patents became more important in international competition than a vast natural resource base.
Images with this text:
Glass shelves packed with different synthetic dyes. Workers at an aniline dye factory owned by Bayer in Barmen, Germany, 1876.
Sample book of dress fabrics coloured with aniline dyes, 1896.
Red
The colour in the vivid, natural red dye known as madder comes from a substance called alizarin found in the roots of madder plants. Inspired by the invention of mauveine, chemists started to look for a way to synthesise alizarin.
In 1869 William Perkin succeeded in producing alizarin at exactly the same time as his competitors, the German company BASF. BASF's alizarin patent was filed at the London Patent Office just one day before Perkin's application arrived.
Perkin and BASF came to an agreement that divided the international market for this important dye: Perkin would sell alizarin to Britain, BASF to the rest of the world. Perkin did well out of alizarin sales for a few years but could not compete with Germany, which soon dominated world trade.
The heyday of synthetic dye manufacturing in Perkin's Greenford factory was over and in 1874 he sold his dyeworks which eventually became part of ICI.
Images with this text:
A German alizarin factory, 1878.
Madder plant, 1772.
The very colourful cover of the BASF catalogue from the world exhibition in Paris, 1900.
Indigo
Following the commercial success of alizarin, the chemical industry's next big challenge was the synthesis of indigo. Its formula became something of a Holy Grail and remained elusive until the end of the nineteenth century.
Natural indigo, derived from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, had been used to dye cloth blue for thousands of years. Its main source was India which, at the time its synthetic counterpart was invented, had over 3000 indigo factories.
Indigo was first artificially synthesised in 1880 by the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. He succeeded in producing only test-tube-sized quantities. The German chemical company BASF funded research into the production of indigo on an industrial scale.
In 1897 BASF finally succeeded in launching 'Indigo Pure'. By then they had invested more than the capital value of the company. But within two decades their synthetic indigo dominated the world market. The industry in India went into severe decline as a result and by the mid-twentieth century had all but died out.
Images with this text:
Blue jeans. Nowadays synthetic indigo is most commonly used in the dyeing of blue jeans.
Preparation of indigo dye by enslaved Africans in the French West Indies, from a treatise on natural history published in Paris, 1694.
Label used in 1903 for indigo shipments to China, at that time one of the most important export markets for BASF synthetic indigo. The label shows the dying process set in China.
Competition in the dye industry
The birthplace of the synthetic dye industry was Britain where William Perkin discovered mauveine in 1856. However, it did not remain at the forefront for long - despite Britain's head start, Germany was in the lead by the end of the nineteenth century.
One reason for Germany's success was its state-subsidised technical schools. Here, scientific talent, upon which industrial innovation depended was nurtured. Gifted students went on to attend universities, some of which were at the vanguard of developments in chemistry.
The large German chemical companies, including BASF, Bayer and Hoechst, prospered by collaborating with universities on joint research projects. Intensely competitive, they used systematic investigative approaches and became increasingly adept at the synthesis of new chemicals.
Such companies soon dominated the synthetic dye market and by 1914 were responsible for producing 75 percent of the world's dye supply.
Images with this image:
Labels advertising the new blue colour produced by BASF as being better than indigo because of its staying power.
Plaque to mark the site of the original Greenford buildings, originally the site of Perkin's laboratory for dyeworks.

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