The Color Purple

William Perkin grew up in a family of seven children. At various times in his life, William had desires to be a builder, a musician, or an artist. His father wanted him to be an architect. William chose to be a chemist. In spite of his father’s displeasure, William was able to create a lab in his home.  

William was able to publish his first paper when he was 16. It was an accidental discovery when he was 18 that set the course for William’s life. He was trying to make quinine, a natural compound for treating malaria. The result of his work was a black material, but not quinine. Perkin was curious as to what he had developed. It turned out to be a purple dye.

Creating a purple dye was a major discovery. Dyes at the time were based upon natural substances. The dye for purple came from a sea snail. It took a tremendous number of snails to produce enough dye to be useful. As a result, purple dye was very expensive. Purple became the color only available to the privileged.

With the purple sludge, Perkin produced more dye and used it to dye silk. The dye held through washing. At age 18, Perkin received a patent on his dye, and he left college. He then developed a production facility, and the dye was in demand by all fashion houses in England and Europe.

William went on to develop other dyes and become quite wealthy. He was a strong man of faith and very generous in his giving. He died at age 69 from pneumonia.

Williams’ development of purple dye made it accessible to people no matter their economic status. One of the most valuable aspects of innovation is that it makes what was once only available to the privileged available to all. Innovation is an equality leveler and a key to democracy. The fact that William developed his dye at a young age is another important aspect of innovation. Often groundbreaking innovations come from those who are not the leaders in the field. New minds are often the catalysts for new ideas. Hidden heroes are often disruptors of society by expanding access to everyone.

Just imagine the democratic nature of innovation. The movement of access to products from the privileged to the many makes democracy possible in part.

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“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”  – Mike Davis (Musician)

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