And then, suddenly, there it was, clinging tenaciously to the glass walls of eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin’s test tubes, without a sea snail in sight. Within six months, Perkin had patented his dye-making process and resigned from the Royal College of Chemistry (over the objections of his mentor, Hofmann, who thought he was being reckless) to devote himself to the manufacture of the dye he first called Tyrian purple. He later switched to an appellation that would go down in history as the first commercial product of the synthetic chemical industry: Perkin’s mauve, or mauveine. At first, Perkin and his brother, Thomas, made their dye in William’s top-floor workshop. Then they switched to the garden behind the family home, and finally to a factory on the outskirts of London alongside the Grand Junction Canal. Luckily for the Perkin brothers, light purple happened to be très chic in the salons of Paris and London in 1857 and 1858. Mauve, as the French called it, was the favorite hue of both Empress Eugénie of France and her close friend Queen Victoria of England. Perkin’s new dye was not only brighter than the mauves his French competitors laboriously produced from lichen, it was also much cheaper. Thanks to Perkin, any fashionable woman could afford to wear Eugénie’s favorite color, and by 1858 almost all of them did. The dye houses of Europe took notice, creating their own crash research programs in aniline chemistry and sending delegations to London to negotiate access to Perkin’s manufacturing secrets.
Two rival dye makers from Basel, Switzerland, were among the closest observers of Perkin’s success. Johann Rudolf Geigy-Merian was among the fourth generation of Geigys in the dyewood business in Basel; his great-grandfather Johann Rudolf Geigy-Gemuseus had founded the firm one hundred years earlier in 1758. His competitor
Alexander Clavel was a relative newcomer to Basel and was not even Swiss. Clavel was a Frenchman who resettled in Basel because that city, situated strategically on the Rhine River between Germany and France, was a thriving center of the textile trade. Geigy-Merian and Clavel shared a fascination with Perkin’s breakthrough in aniline chemistry and the cheaper, brighter dyes it produced. Their enthusiasm quickened with the discovery, in 1858, of the second great aniline dye. It was a bright red called fuchsine that could be produced even more cheaply than Perkin’s mauveine.
To Geigy and Clavel, there seemed to be no reason not to try to out-Perkin Perkin, especially because the young Englishman had failed to secure patents in any countries except his own. Even if he had, it would not have mattered, since Switzerland did not enforce patents and would not recognize any chemical process as protectable intellectual property for another fifty years. (The resentful French called Switzerland le pays de contre-facteurs, the land of counterfeiters, while the even angrier Germans called it der Räuber-Staat, the nation of pirates.) Geigy and Clavel did not bother trying to negotiate with Perkin; he had discussed his methods with enough people that they were now effectively in the public domain—in patent-free Switzerland, at least. By the end of 1859, Geigy and Clavel had each established his own thriving aniline dye manufacturing operation in Basel, within a few miles of each other on canals near the Rhine. In doing so, they set their firms on course to become two of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world—and eventual partners in a sprawling manufacturing operation in a small New Jersey town that had its own history of piracy: Toms River.
Over the next ten years of frenetic activity along the Rhine, in Germany as well as Switzerland, the production of aniline dyes—purples, reds, and blacks first, then every color in the rainbow—transformed one small family firm after another into international colossi. By 1870, thanks to the new synthetic dyes, most of the companies that would dominate the chemical industry for the next century and a half had established themselves as global players. The list included Geigy, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa (an acronym for Aktiengesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation, or the Corporation for Aniline Production), and the biggest of all, BASF, which stood for Badische Anilin-und Soda-Fabrik, or the Baden Aniline and Soda Factory. Alexander Clavel’s company prospered, too, especially after he sold it in 1873. Eleven years later, the company took the name Gesellschaft für Chemische Industrie im Basel, Society for Chemical Industry in Basel, or Ciba for short. The third great Basel dye maker, Sandoz, jumped into the game soon afterward, in 1886.