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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

3.71  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,170 Ratings  ·  107 Reviews
In 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce color. In a "witty, erudite, and entertaining" (Esquire) style, Simon Garfield explains how the experimental mishap that produced an odd shade of purple revolutionized fashion, as well as industrial applications of chemistry research. Occasionally honored in certain colle ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published May 17th 2002 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published September 4th 2000)
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I have a confession to make - I work for a chemical company (not making dyes though), and used to be an engineer in a former existence, so I understood a fair amount of what this book says about chemistry. BUT, it's a great narrative of how one small moment in time, a mistake, an error, happened to completely revolutionize our lives today.

The chemical industry gets a bad wrap these days, sometimes fairly (chemical companies have done some pretty stupid/heinous things) and sometimes unfairly (tr
Marissa Morrison
May 09, 2009 Marissa Morrison rated it it was ok
I am glad that Garfield wrote this book because I don't think I would otherwise have learned about the history and significance of synthetic dyes. However, this book seemed to be more a collection of facts than a narrative. I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me that Mauve contains the author's notes, which he planned to flesh out to create a coherent story, but then he ran out of time. In many instances, I wasn't sure what to make of the facts presented.

Example One: Garfield says that Perki
May 24, 2010 Trena rated it it was ok
Recommended to Trena by: Vivienne
This is the kind of book that gives history a bad name. The format is very "so and so was born on such and such date, and then on this date he did this." No emotional content, no larger over-arching narrative, nothing compelling whatsoever (and it covered two world wars in which dye works played some non-trivial role!). It could possibly have been more boring, but I'm not sure how. For instance, it contained no fewer than five seemingly real-time accounts of nine hour celebratory banquets held i ...more
Science, like art, is largely perspiration with a minute amount of inspiration thrown into it. Occasionally, however, the greatest discoveries can come about through sheer luck.

However, William Perkin was more than merely a lucky amateur. Humble, soft spoken and yet gifted, talented, blessed with a curious, keen intellect and scientific know-how, Mr. Perkin set out to find a cure for malaria and stumbled across something just as wonderful—a brand new color that would end up revolutionizing the
Jan 31, 2012 Wealhtheow rated it liked it
A slim but broad-reaching tale of the beginning of artifiical dyes. At the time Perkin made his discovery that coal-tar could be transformed into mauve dye, chemistry was thought of like philosophy--a gentleman's pursuit with no worldly or industrial value. Perkin's discovery and subsequent ability to make money off of it changed that perception forever. By the time he died, chemistry was a roaring industry.

The history of artificial dyes is a fascinating one. Before Perkin discovered mauve, all
Dec 22, 2011 Ensiform rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
The story of William Perkin, a British chemist who as a teenager accidentally stumbled upon coal-tar derivative dyes --- mauve being the first. Beyond its immediate impact of creating a new industry and economy (“mauve measles” was a huge fad), the dyes were later found to have applications in cell research, medicines, explosives and plastics.

It is an intriguing story, but it’s better suited to a New Yorker article; the book itself is a bit much. Perkin wasn’t a very interesting man apart from h
Sep 28, 2007 Brian rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It is hard not to be impressed by an author who can take such a seemingly mundane topic as the development of a dye for a particular purple hue and produce from it such a readable story . Of course, it helps that there is already a surprisingly interesting untold tale to be told, and it covers quite a bit of ground - from the staid and stiff academic institutions of Europe, through the establishment of the early applied synthetic chemistry laboratories, to the very founding of the pharmaceutical ...more
Jul 23, 2015 Amy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
A nonfiction book that reads like a novel - not so easy to do, and very satisfying to read! I'm a big fan of purple, the more deeply violet, the better - so I was quite happy to see the gorgeous shade of original mauve reproduced in the color plates (and at various sites online, just Google "historical mauve"!). Normally I perceive mauve as that ugly 80's color you find on wallpaper, alongside the equally unfortunate mint-green, a relic of days long past (and usually, visits to sketchy hotels or ...more
Feb 18, 2015 Lynn rated it it was amazing
Today's post is on Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World by Simon Garfield. It is 222 pages including an index and it is published by W. W. Norton & Company. The cover is an oil painting of Sir William Perkins. The intended reader is someone who likes science, history, and surprising inventions. There is no language, no sex, and no violence in this book. The story is told in two ways; the past is from the third person perspective with letters and other first hand documen ...more
Nov 28, 2011 Clarissa rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Astonishing -- a story most of us never knew or have forgotten. Did you know that sticky, smell, humble coal tar has given us everything from fashion's bright colors to a variety of medicines? I had no idea.

Unfortunately, the story is told in a strange order that makes it hard to follow, but the facts are interesting and the writer does his best to stick to what people really said and did.
Liz Hedgecock
Jan 01, 2016 Liz Hedgecock rated it liked it
I picked this book up because I really enjoy Simon Garfield's books, I like non-fiction, and I'm interested in the Victorians. It started brilliantly and I was drawn into the story of the various stops and starts before the eventual creation of mauve.

However, about halfway the book seemed to run out of steam. Yes, the discoveries and applications which followed on from mauve were interesting and exciting; but for me the human interest was lacking, particularly as Perkin himself became less invo
Tom Schulte
Jul 02, 2011 Tom Schulte rated it it was ok
Great idea and subject, but the author's awakward attempts to mix 19th Century chemist Perkin's life with science, fashion and the modern day never really blends well.
Jul 22, 2007 David rated it it was amazing
This was a fascinating book, albeit on a very specific topic. Nicely done and full of interesting nuggets of information about life in Victorian England.
Nov 01, 2008 Michael rated it really liked it
Quite interesting despite bogging down considerably in the middle. Mauve - it's a dye! it's a dessert topping! it helped fight tropical diseases!

and more!
Nov 07, 2014 Stephanie rated it it was amazing
This book tells the story of the invention of synthetic dyes. It began with a 18-year-old chemist who was searching for a way to make synthetic quinine. He ended up inventing synthetic mauve (purple) dye instead. The book traces the beginnings of modern dying techniques, the invention of Sulfa drugs, the invention of Penicillin and modern warfare. I was to borrow an English phrase "gobsmacked." Great book. I highly recommend it to those who love science, history and finding those little connecti ...more
Oct 23, 2014 Meghan rated it really liked it
I can't remember when I came across this, but I read a review awhile back that inspired me put this on my "to read" list. It is a biography of William Perkin, who first discovered and made practical the first synthetic dye from coal-tar, but it's also an overview of the massive way he impacted chemistry, medicine, and manufacture b/c of this discovery. I'm not particularly interested in chemistry, but it is an engaging story and amazing to think of how one relatively-unknown man had such an impa ...more
Nov 19, 2015 Bill rated it liked it
Filed under books about unusual topics. Who knew Mauve, the first synthetic dye, had such an impact! While there was a lot of interesting information here, I felt like after a while this book was less about William Perkins and Mauve, and more about the science that grew from the time period.

A unique story about an overlooked scientific invention. I learned more about Mauve than I thought possible. Garfield does a great job of showing how the process that created the dye Mauve influenced ma
Nov 09, 2015 Coby rated it it was amazing
Mauve is an informative mix of science, history, and biography. Simon Garfield tells the story of William Henry Perkin who created the dye color mauve from coal tar extracts while searching for a synthetic form of quinine in 1856. What Perkin did at the age of eighteen was begin the modern synthesis of organic compounds from fossil fuels that have transformed the world from a mid-19th century world to the one of today. His accidental discovery of the first aniline dye through a trial and error e ...more
Mar 31, 2012 Heather rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Garfield's writing style is mostly matter-of-fact, with a few flashes of oddness or romance, which I wanted more of: I liked, for example, that he gave the recipe for Perkin's dye alongside a recipe for Nesselrode pudding (served at a jubilee dinner in New York celebrating Perkin's invention). I wanted more of that: my absolute favorite thing in the book was the long list of where color-names come from (chemicals flowers, places, fruits, common things, etc.).

Which isn't to say that the central
Deborah Biancotti
An interesting story, plainly told, about a modest man (William Perkin) whose dedication to science over fame meant he never fully exploited the benefits of his discoveries. Also some passing references to the dangers of arsenic & aniline colouring techniques of the 1800s, and where the science of colour has been and come to. With some irritating quotes from the nineties, I suppose to ground the biography as contemporarily relevant.

Although my little hardcover is physically beautiful and has
Feb 07, 2009 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gosh I liked this book. High school chemistry was a long time ago——back when there were only 12 known elements––and I would never have thought that a book about chemistry and a chemist could be so engaging. But it was.

And his discovery? Mauve! It’s not even a color I have an affinity, it's not in my wardrobe. Not a color I go out of my way to admire, but when I came across this book, it intrigued me.

It’s the story of William Perkin an English chemist who in 1856 was trying to create artificial
Jenny GB
Jan 20, 2013 Jenny GB rated it liked it
This book details William Perkin's discovery of mauve. He comes across the color while he is working with coal tar and attempting to find some medicinal applications. He dyes a cloth that color, showed it to dyers that were enthusiastic about it, and then began to put together the means to produce the color (no easy task). The first half of the book details his life before and after the discovery as well as the changes that happened because of his work during his lifetime. The second half of the ...more
Apr 23, 2013 Dolly rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of nonfiction
Highly technical, this story offers the life story of William Perkin and the long-term results of his accidental discovery. It was the April 2013 selection for my local book club and if it weren't for that, I'm not sure if I'd have ever read this book.

The narrative is informative and interesting, but I would caution that much of the chemistry discussed is probably best suited for those with strong chemistry backgrounds.

Overall, I found this book to offer a fascinating look at the background of
Dec 24, 2012 Caroline rated it liked it
Shelves: own, microhistories
A semester of grad school has happened since I finished this book (and is the primarily reason it's taken me this long to write a review). So a detailed review is not in the cards, but I do still remember my general thoughts.

I love books like this - that are hyper-specific and contain history that you would probably never hear about any other place. Who knew that mauve was such a big deal, both economically and culturally? Not me. In addition to the fascinating story of the discovery of mauve sp
Aug 08, 2012 Madelynp rated it really liked it
Fun biography of an unknown scientist! I was not aware of how instrumental the development of textile dyes was to the beginning of modern chemistry and chemical engineering, but upon further thought, it makes sense that it was the coal tar industry that really jump started the industry as we know it.

The writing in the book is good--although he's not as entertaining as authors like David Bodanis or Walter Isaacson, the style is still engaging. My one complaint with the biography was the way that
Michael Mcclelland
The chemistry at work here is the most boring part of the book but it acts as a (mauve) thread through this historic tale covering the move of this science from a curiousity of Victorian gentleman in their private homes to an industrial-sized, commercial application. As it does so it touches on consumerism, trade, patent protection, globalisation, the British character, the fickleness of public recollection and the extraordinarily wide uses to which the discovery of a coloured compound have led ...more
Ryan Maloney
Aug 04, 2015 Ryan Maloney rated it it was ok
I think this book could have done with a lot more editing. I enjoyed the first third of the book, which I felt did a pretty good job telling a story. After that it gets a bit lost, with a bunch of disjointed facts pieced together as paragraphs and chapters that have no flow and connection from one point to the next. I was really hoping this book would be good, but it mostly just left me bored.
Jun 04, 2014 Rebecca rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
While I loved the premise of this book, it was poorly written and needed a much better editor. The story goes back and forth in no chronological order and with no transitions. For instance, it starts out at the end of Perkins life with a long and detailed and boring description of some fancy dinner he was honored at in New York.

At some point the author appears to decides "Oh, maybe I should stick some info in here about the natural dye industry" and starts going on about madder. This book reall
Jan 22, 2009 Vivienne rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Nerds
Recommended to Vivienne by: Dayle Furlong, who had to take History of Science in university
Shelves: non-fiction
The true legacy of Mauve is the birth of organic chemistry as a scientific discipline and the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. Overall, the book reminded me of content from the "History of Science" class which fine arts B.Sc. candidates could take as their sole science credit.

In the first part of Mauve, the author outlines the discovery of the first big-money making aniline dye by William Perkin at age 18, through difficulties shifting the dye paradigm from naturally derived to synthetic, setti
Aug 17, 2009 mim rated it it was amazing
I'd been wanting to read this book ever since it was published because I've been teaching a course on color (first at University and now at the VMFA studio school.) I had no idea that it would be as interesting to me as it has been. In fact, I think that if I'd read it years ago (had it been written then) I'd have taken a course in organic chemistry. I learned so much from this book! I learned that a disinfectant common when I was a child (mercurochrome) was originally a dye? Oh, that's just a t ...more
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Simon Garfield is a British journalist and non-fiction author. He was educated at the independent University College School in Hampstead, London, and the London School of Economics, where he was the Executive Editor of The Beaver. He also regularly writes for The Observer newspaper.
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