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

3.7 of 5 stars 3.70  ·  rating details  ·  1,018 ratings  ·  98 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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Ruth
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
...more
Marissa Morrison
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
...more
Trena
May 24, 2010 Trena rated it 2 of 5 stars
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
Marsha
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
...more
Wealhtheow
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
...more
Ensiform
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
...more
Brian
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
Amy Jones
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
Lynn
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
Clarissa
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.
Tom Schulte
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.
David
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.
Michael
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!
Stephanie
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
Meghan
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
Heather
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
...more
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
...more
Stephen
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
...more
Jenny GB
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
Dolly
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
...more
Caroline
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
...more
Madelynp
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
...more
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
Rebecca Coday
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
...more
Vivienne
Jan 22, 2009 Vivienne rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
...more
mim
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
John
I didn't think the book quite made the case for why the chemical discovery of the color mauve as a byproduct of coal-tar was the inspiration for all the other coal-tar related discoveries. I enjoyed the smattering of chemistry, wish he developed it a little more. Over all very interesting book.
Abbie
I love how fantastically detailed this book is, including detailed recipes of how to make the dyes. I read this during my A Levels to help my understanding of Chemisty. I learnt so much and would definately read it again at some point in my life time.
Debbie
This is not my usual reading matter. I only read it because a colleague at work was quite keen for me to borrow it and read it. Whilst I found some of it interesting, I also found detailed descriptions of chemical processes tedious beyond belief. I fully realise that others may find this far more interesting than I did.
Candice
Mar 30, 2008 Candice rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people interested in the history of science
When I first heard about this book, it sounded interesting, and it was, but some of the history of various chemical companies got a bit tedious. William Perkin produced the first synthetic dye, mauve, from coal tar. He was searching for a way to produce quinine, a cure for malaria, but the discovery of the dye got in the way. It was interesting to read about the way the Victorians viewed science, chemistry in particular.

Perkin produced the dye when he was just 18 years old! The synthetic dye led
...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.
More about Simon Garfield...
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

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