William Perkin grew up in a family of seven children in nineteenth century London. At various times in his youth, 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 published his first paper when he was 16. An accidental discovery in 1856, when William was 18, set the course for the rest of his 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 about what he had developed. It turned out to be functional as 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 was the color associated with aristocrats, because only they could afford it.
With the purple sludge he had created, William 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. All of this was taking place in a time of rapid industrialization, which meant his production could readily scale up to meet demand.
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 can take what was once only available to the privileged and make it available to all. Innovation can be an equality leveler.
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 senior leaders in the field. New minds are often the catalysts for new ideas. Finally, the wealth from innovation has often been used for the betterment of society. We might well ask, if that is still true today.
Just imagine the democratizing role that innovation can play. Expanding access to products from the few to the many can provide a democratizing impetus, fostering more social progress. Just imagine if we democratized innovation by opening up participation to the many. After all, the capacity for innovative thinking isn’t limited to a certain group of people. What if we tapped the innovative capabilities of a greater share of our population? Just imagine how innovation could drive progress for everyone.
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“Innovation and commerce are as powerful tools for creating social progress as they are for driving technological advancement.”– Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, biotech entrepreneur
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.