The Power of Mauve

20 February 2003

I recently read a biography entitled Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World. Its protagonist, Sir William Perkin, was the first chemist to make a fortune by transforming an invention into an industrial process.

At school in England, his teacher once asked him to perform a chemistry experiment to synthesise quinine. The experiment failed and a black chemical substance was produced instead, which stained the tablecloth purple. This black substance was to become the basic ingredient of aniline, a dyeing agent with extensive industrial applications.

 Sir William took out a patent for his invention 18 months later and commercialised it. His discovery was to become the “catalyst” for many subsequent inventions by other scientists whose applications in dyeing, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food production created industries worth billions of dollars.

Sir William lived more than a century ago, but we can learn valuable lessons from his life story. The resounding success of his scientific work as a teenager was not fuelled solely by his quest for material profit but also by his innate curiosity.

We can imagine how difficult it was for such a young lad to earn the trust of other people. Nonetheless he surmounted all the obstacles before him and persisted in turning his invention into a commercial enterprise. He eventually became an outstanding entrepreneur. At 23 he was already a very wealthy man. At 36 he retired and returned to what he liked doing best – scientific research. His success was not the result of sheer luck but was founded upon qualities that every one should strive to possess: keen powers of observation, a voracious appetite for knowledge, a dogged determination to succeed, and confidence to defy all odds.

The scientist Joseph Henry once said: “The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

Education is what prepares us – and it should not be confined to the mere transfer of skills. The greatest challenge for educationalists today is to fire our youth with the enthusiasm to pursue knowledge and be part of the learning process. Success in life depends on a combination of different factors, but the most critical one is the ability to grasp an opportunity when it arises and apply the knowledge one has built up.

Competing in business in today’s increasingly globalised world is a battle of wits; it is not for the run-of-the-mill. Like Sir William, we must combine motivation with vision and curiosity, move ahead with perseverance and courage, and to seek perfection through innovation in whatever we do.

Finally, I would like to quote a line from the book: “Without experimenting I am nothing. Try and then try again. Who knows what is possible?”