Mauve was the result of a good chemist failing to beat nature. William Henry Perkin took a mistaken route to quinine in 1856, but made a fortune out of the first commercially successful synthetic dye. Mauve was the forerunner of later developments: the synthesis of natural dyes, synthetic pharmaceuticals, synthetic fibres, pesticides and modern explosives. But mauve also became the prototypical example of the British invention let down by the country’s failure to capitalise on a success and become the dominant player in the industry that followed. Does mauve still have any lessons for us today?