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

Mauve? Not the butchest of colours perhaps; you might be forgiven for wondering whether, if a Longitude-style book had to be written about hues, Red, Blue or Yellow might not be the place to start instead. But Garfield has chosen his colour well: mauve and its 19th-century inventor William Perkin constitute a fascinating story. This book convincingly argues that Perkin's invention of this chemical dye became a major turning point in the history of Western science and industry. Purple had always been a royal colour, in part because it was so difficult (and hence expensive) to achieve a good shade out of the animal, mineral or plant raw materials from which all dyes were derived; it took 17,000 dried and crushed cactus insects to make one ounce of cochineal. Perkin found a cheap way to produce a synthetic purple; he made a fortune and prompted a craze for the colour in the fashion industry of his day. But more than this, Garfield argues, he kick-started chemistry from being a gentleman-amateur pastime into becoming the major world industry it is today. Mauve (the Victorians pronounced it "morv", apparently) really did change the world. Just as Perkins's colour was something wholly new, Garfield's Mauve represents a new sort of book, a more varied synthesis than the run-of-the-mill animal, mineral or plant books. In part it is a biography, in part a social and cultural history, and partly it is a meditation on the roles chemistry (and colour) play in our world. It even manages to function as a primer in inorganic chemistry. Garfield achieves this last without being either baffling or condescending; he breaks us in gently to the subject of, for instance, benzene rings by relating Friedrich Kekule's 1858 dream, dozing in front of the fire, "gambolling atoms in snake-like motion, one of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail: his benzene structure consisted of six carbon atoms, each attached to a hydrogen atom C6H6". The model for this integration of chemistry into everyday life is taken from the period itself--at one point we're told that "William Perkins Jnr wrote again, enquiring about the atomic structures of various synthetic perfumes and wishing his father a happy birthday". Presumably in that order. Garfield's book draws you into this world of dyes and dyers; the reader emerges a little mauver than when they started. --Adam Roberts

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