See S. Garfield, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World (2001).
Perkin was born and brought up in the East End of London. At the age of 15, he entered London's Royal College of Chemistry, studying under August Wilhelm von Hofmann. He lived on Cable Street in East London, where he would often perform experiments. It was here that he discovered that aniline could be partly transformed into a crude mixture that when extracted with alcohol gave an intense purple colour. This Perkin and von Hofmann commercialized as mauveine. Perkin's discovery and sales resulted in a trade war, as competitors released variations of his initial dye.
In 1879, Perkin received the Royal Society's Royal Medal, followed by the Society's Davy Medal in 1889. He was knighted in 1906, the same year he received the first Perkin Medal, established to commemorate the fifty years since his discovery. He died the following year of pneumonia and appendicitis.
They satisfied themselves that they might be able to scale up the discovery and commercialize it as a dye, which they called mauveine. Their initial experiments indicated that it dyed silk in a way that was stable against washing and light. They sent some samples to a dye works in Perth, Scotland, and received a very promising reply from the general manager of the company, Robert Pullar. Perkin filed for a patent in August, 1856, while he was still only 18. At the time, all dyes in use for colouring cloth were extracts of natural products, and many of them were expensive and labour-intensive to produce. Many were especially wanting in terms of stability, or fastness. The colour purple, which had been used since ancient times as a mark of aristocracy and prestige, was especially expensive and difficult -- known as Tyrian purple, it came from the glandular mucus of certain molluscs. The process to produce it was variable and complicated, so Perkin and his brother understood that they were onto a possible substitute that could be made into a commercial success.
Perkin could not have chosen a better time or place for his discovery. England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, largely driven by advances in the production of textiles, the science of chemistry had advanced to the point that it could have a major impact on industrial processes and coal tar, the major source of his raw material was being produced in abundance as a waste product of the production of coal gas and coke.
Inventing the dye was one thing, raising the capital, manufacturing it in quantity cheaply, adapting it to cotton, getting acceptance from commercial dyers, and creating demand for it in the public was something else. Perkin was active in all of these areas. In a whirlwind of activity, he got his father to put up the capital, his brothers to partner in the creation of a factory, he invented a mordant for cotton, became a one man technical service operation, and publicized it in the marketplace. He was helped in the latter by the adoption of a similar colour in France by Napoleon's Empress Eugénie and Queen Victoria, and by the adoption of the fabric-hungry crinoline, or hooped-skirt. Everything seemed to "fall into place" through hard work and a little luck too. He became rich.
The true significance of Perkin's work was in showing that science and common everyday business and consumerism could co-exist. Even at the age of 18, he demonstrated chemistry could be extremely lucrative, for many scientists at that time were concerned solely with academia.
After Perkin's discovery, innumerable new aniline dyes appeared (some discovered by Perkin himself), and the factories required to produce them were constructed all across Europe, launching what amounted to an international trade war in fabrics and dyes.
William Perkin continued active research in organic chemistry for the rest of his life. He discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes including Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green. He later found syntheses for coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfumes, and cinnamic acid, this latter preparation becoming known as the Perkin reaction. Local lore has it that the colour of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity of Perkin's Greenford dyeworks. In 1869, Perkin found a method to commercially produce alizarin, a brilliant red dye then produced from the madder plant, from anthracene, but the German chemical company BASF patented the same process one day before he did. Over the next few years, Perkin found his research and development efforts increasingly eclipsed by the German chemical industry, and in 1874, he sold his factory and retired from business, already a very wealthy man.
Perkin received many honors in his lifetime. In 1879, he received the Royal Society's Royal Medal, followed, in 1889, by its Davy Medal. He was knighted in 1906, the same year he was awarded the first Perkin Medal, established to commemorate the fifteth anniversary of his discovery of mauveine. Today it is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry and has been awarded annually by the American section of the Society of Chemical Industry to many inspiring and gifted chemists.
Perkin died in 1907 of pneumonia and appendicitis.