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Likely Stories : Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, by Simon Garfield


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield is an interesting story and full of information about chemistry and science in general. 


The story begins with Simon Garfield, “Sir William Perkins seldom traveled abroad.  He wrote in a modest and unflowery style.  Quote: ‘The first public laboratory I worked in was the Royal College of Chemistry in Oxford Street, London, in Eighteen-fifty-three to Eighteen-fifty-six.’  It wasn’t like the great electric laboratories of today, he noted, with your huge booming furnaces.  ‘There were no Bunsen burners—we had short lengths of iron tube covered with

 wire gauze.’  It was a grey place.  There were many nasty explosions” (3).  These and many other quotes belong to Perkins.

According to Simon, “In this story, Perkins had been elevated to the status of scientific saint, his merits placed alongside those of Watt and Stephenson, Morse and Bell” (13).  I am amazed not to have heard of Perkins until now.  I was not surprised that scarcely only a couple of women were involved in science.  I do bow my head to Madam Curie.

Simon continues, “In Eighteen-fifty-six, Perkins had discovered the first aniline dye, the first famous artificial colour to be derived from coal.  From coal: now, fifty years later, no one regarded this as in the least bit extraordinary” (9).

Garfield continues, “In the first months of Eighteen-fifty-six, Gustave Flaubert began Madame Bovary, Karl Bechstein opened his piano factory, the plans for the bell Big Ben were drawn up at a foundry in White Chapel and Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross. 

During the Easter holidays of that year, August Hofmann returned briefly to Germany, and William Perkins retired to his laboratory on the top floor of his home in the East End of London.  Perkins domestic workplace contained a small table and a few shelves for bottles.  He had constructed a furnace in the fireplace.  There was no running water or gas supply, and the room was lit by old glass spirit lamps.  It was an amateur’s laboratory, an enthusiast’s collection of stained beakers and test tubes and rudimentary chemicals.  The room smelled of ammonia.  The table on which he worked was stained with spillage from previous efforts, and probably of ink as well” (35).  The eclectic and arcane items would baffle only the mind of a savvy experimenter. 

Simon Garfield’s story of Sir William Perkins, and his discovery of Mauve, is a book worthy of all those interested in science.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!


Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.