Here’s an oddity: an accidental discovery that starts with one of today’s most likely contenders for R&D tax credit claims (chemical sciences) and ends with arguably one of the less likely qualifiers (textiles).
How can that be? Well, not for the first or last time, an R&D project set off in one direction but ended up somewhere else entirely.
The year was 1856 and 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin was trying to create an artificial version of quinine – a cure for malaria which was rife in Europe at the time. Instead, the experiments in his London apartment took a rather unexpected but very colourful turn, producing a dark oily sludge with an intense purple hue.
Upon further investigation, Perkin discovered that the substance he later called ‘mauve’ or ‘mauveine’ would dye silk permanently. A major advance on the insect, mollusc and plant-derived dyes of the day which tended to fade over time, the world’s first synthetic dye not only revolutionised the textile industry but also, it’s said, inspired pioneering achievements in the fields of immunology and chemotherapy.
Unusually, the rewards from Perkin’s rambling R&D came thick and fast. Worn by Queen Victoria to her eldest daughter’s wedding in 1858 and fashion icon Empress Eugénie of France who thought it matched her eyes, mauve soon became all the rage, giving a new meaning to the term ‘the colour of money’.