The Progress of Science - The Jubilee of The Coal Tar Color Industry And Sir William Henry Perkin

Popular Science, marraskuu 1906

It is not often that a scientific man can take part in the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of a great discovery that he has made. Perkin, when he was a boy of eighteen, noted a muddy precipitate which occured in connection with an attempt to produce quinine artificially. The new idea that this substance could be used as a dye-stuff, the courage which led to a patent and further investigations, and the patent persistence with which all practical difficulties were overcome are an unusually clear exhibit of what is meant by genius. This violet color was called 'mauve' and was the forerunner of the aniline dyes and of much besides.

Fifty years ago the dyeing and printing industries were on an extremely empirical basis, the natural dye-stuffs being applied by secret and rule-of-thumb methods. In order to substitute a laboratory product and scientific methods, it was necessary for Perkin to establish a manufactory, which he did with the aid of his father and brother. The production of aniline was put on a commercial basis, and the discovery and application of the other dye-stuffs was a comparatively simple matter. Magenta was discovered in France three years later, and subsequently all the colors of the rainbow were produced from aniline, Perkin himself being largely responsible for alizarine, and indirectrly for synthetic indigo. As is well known, the artificial production of these dye-stuffs has led to great changes in agriculture and manufactures, one of the most important being the alliance of science and industry in Germany, which has given that country almost a monopoly n the work that originated with Perkin in Great Britain.

The coal tar products now give us flavors and perfumes as well as colors. Saccharine, more than five hundred times as sweet as sugar, was discovered in the laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University. Salicylic and benxoic acids, though natural products, are chiefly produced artificially. Although quinine, which was the subject of Perkin's original research, has not been made by synthesis, the coal-tar products have given us an extraordinary series of drugs-antipyrin, acetanilid, phenocoll, etc. They have given us smokeless powder, photographic films and indirectly nitrates from the atmosphere and thecyanide process of gold extraction.

The scientific advances have been no less remarkable than the industrial developments, and it should be especially noted that to these Perkin has contributed his full share. After acquiring a competence, he sold his manufactory in 1873 and has since devoted himself to scientific research. Professor Nernst has stated that Perkin is the founder of physical chemistry. In connection with his influence on chemistry, it should be remembered that two of his sons have become eminent for work in organic chemistry, both being fellows of the Royal Society.

The scientific and industrial developments following on Perkin's great discovery were adequately celebrated by an international gathering at the Royal Institution on July 26. It was presided over by Professor R. Meldola and various speeches and presentations were made, including the Hoffman and Lavoisier gold medals and degrees from several foreign universities. There was also a dinner, at which Mr. Haldane, secretary for war, proposed the toast of the evening and addresses were made by Professor Emil Fisher, Sir Henry Roscoe and others. Sir William and Lady Perkin held receptions at their home near Harrow and at London. American chemists decided to hold a special celebration of the jubilee, and Sir William and Lady Perkin accepted an invitation to be present at a banquet to be given in New York City, on October 6. Professir Chandler, of Columbia University, presided, and addresses were made by Dr. Hugo Schweitzer, President Ira Remsen, Dr. H. W. Wiley, Professor Walther Nernst and others. Sir William Perkin was presented with the first impression of a Perkin medal, which will hereafter be awarded annually for work in applied chemistry; with a silver tea service, and with honorary membership in the American Chemical Society. There will also be founded in honor of Sir William Perkin a circulating library for American chemists.

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