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Topic section: Mauve as icon
TOPIC SECTION:
Mauve as icon
Mauve was not the first synthetic dye and soon it was eclipsed by other dyes which were more resistant to fading in daylight. Perkin had b
Image: An exhibit from the Jubilee party held at Perkin's home in Sudbury, Middlesex, on 27 July 1906
An exhibit from the Jubilee party held at Perkin's home in Sudbury, Middlesex, on 27 July 1906.
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library
een long retired and by 1900 German firms dominated the industry. How did Perkin’s discovery of mauve in 1856 become the iconic founding event of the synthetic-dye industry?

In the early 20th century, there was growing concern about the decline of British technical education and the weakness of the Briti
There was a two-month-long exhibition at the Science Museum staged in collaboration with ICI Dyestuffs
sh dye industry. The opportunity to show the contribution of a British chemist to an important science-based industry and to illustrate the importance of championing that industry in Britain was too good to be missed. Perkin was roused from his comfortable retirement in Sudbury in west London and more or less forced (mainly by his family) to travel to New York and elsewhere to promote his anniversary. This effort effectively killed the elderly Perkin and he died in July 1907.

When the centenary came round in 1956, the celebrations were still substantial. There was a two-month-long exhibition at the Science Museum staged in collaboration with ICI D
Image: Dyson G-Force Cyclonic vacuum cleaner, 1990
This Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner, is another example of British invention
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library
yestuffs, with dioramas showing the manufacture and uses of dyes throughout history. Whereas mauve stood on its own as a warning in 1906, 50 years later there were other more recent examples of Britain’s failure to capitalise on its inventions, notably television, penicillin and radar. An accidental discovery in the Easter break in 1856 had become a complex metaphor for Britain’s economic and technological woes.

By contrast little has been done to mark the 150th anniversary of Perkin’s discovery of mauve. The dye industry in Britain has almost entirely faded away, dyes are no longer regarded as high technology, and we expect that British inventions such as Dyson vacuum cleaners will be manufactured elsewhere. In our globalised society, we are happy if British-born innovators make their breakthroughs outside Britain, from Tim Berners-Lee and the internet to Jonathan Ive and the iPod. Has mauve lost its power to be an emblem of British inventiveness undermined by British neglect?

 
 
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Topic section: Mauve as Science
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East End teenager tries to make a drug from coal tar and ends up making a fortune from a completely new kind of dye…  > more

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Topic section: Mauve as Innovation
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Perkin’s mauve became the first commercially successful dye to be produced. However by the end of 19th century it was Germany, not Britain, who was leading in the industry.  > more
 
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