Technology Trivia Quiz

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4. No success like failure

In 1856, English chemist William Perkin, hoping to improve the treatment of malaria, set himself the task of producing artificial quinine in his home laboratory. Although the effort failed, Perkin succeeded in creating quite a different product instead. What was it?

A) The first commercial bug repellant
B) The first food preservative
C) The first synthetic dye
D) The first transparent plastic

Your answer — B) The first food preservative — was incorrect.

Chemists in the mid-1800s often created new coloring agents in the course of their experiments without realizing their commercial value. Perkin reacted aniline with potassium dichromate. When the product of the reaction was added to alcohol, it turned pinkish-purple. Instead of discarding this accidental product, Perkin used it to dye a piece of silk. It worked so well that he went on to patent the discovery which he named first “mauveine”, then “Tyrian purple” and finally “mauve”, after the French name for the mallow plant, which has purple flowers.

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