13/11/2012 05:23 GMT | Updated 12/01/2013 05:12 GMT

The New Archbishop, Fashion and a Pervasion of Purple

It was a photograph of Justin Welby that did it for me. The Bishop of Durham and Archbishop-designate of Canterbury is wearing a purple cassock in the photo. Now, as I write, I see purple everywhere.

The Monday edition of our local paper - the Basingstoke Gazette - is lying on my desk at the moment. It arrived with a predominantly purple flier advertising all sorts of Premier Stores' products: Heinz Beanz "ONLY 60p," new Cadbury Crispello "ONLY 50p," Original Nescafé "ONLY £2.50" and other "exclusive deals" shout out in white against purple backgrounds. The Quality Street tin from last Christmas that now contains paper clips, ballpoint pens, pencils, a pencil sharpener and a miscellany of other office items is purple. The box file where I keep receipts and tax papers is purple.

And my wife, Mary, who has just popped in with a cup of coffee, is wearing her favourite cardigan. It is purple. She points out that purple is featured in the "Focus on fashion" section of the woman's page of the local paper: "MAKE a play for purple in your wardrobe this season ... how to work the Quality Street shade."

Purple, and variations thereof - mauve, indigo, violet, magenta, crimson and claret - are ubiquitous nowadays. But it was not always so.

For many centuries, purple was the colour not of the populace but of royalty, popes, bishops, the high, the mighty, and the rich. That was because purple pigments and dyes were scarce and therefore highly prized. Han purple, a rare synthetic pigment containing the chemical elements barium, copper, silicon, and oxygen, was one of the pigments used in paints to decorate the Terracotta Warriors buried with the first Emperor of China some 2,200 years ago. The natural dye Tyrian purple, also called Imperial purple, was extracted from small molluscs in the Mediterranean Sea. These creatures were difficult to collect and several thousand were required to produce one gram of the dye.

That all changed in 1856 when an 18-year old English chemist made a discovery of immense significance not only for fashion and the textile industry but also for the pharmaceutical industry. While working in a laboratory in his family home in London, William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) serendipitously prepared a dye that became known variously as mauveine, Perkin's mauve, or aniline purple. The chance discovery using extracts from coal tar gave birth to the synthetic dyes industry and the production of colours that revolutionized fashion. It also led to the mass production of other organic chemicals, notably pharmaceuticals such as aspirin.

Perkin made a fortune from his discovery. He retired as a dyemaker at the age of 36, sold his business, and spent much of the rest of life carrying out research in organic chemistry. It is highly unlikely that he realised his discovery was to have catastrophic consequences. As I note in my book Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, the industrial carnage and destruction of the First World War would not have been possible without his discovery of synthetic purple and the resulting industrial-scale production of explosive chemicals derived from coal tar such as trinitrotoluene (TNT).

Michael Freemantle's latest book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War is available to purchase here.

His previous book, An Introduction to Ionic Liquids, is available here.