Know any colors that changed the world?
August 10, 2009 5:48 PM   Subscribe

Can you think of an example of when a color could be said to have "changed the world"?

I'm writing an article/blog post (for $$$, albeit a modest amount, so if that makes you less inclined to help, I'd certainly understand) and I'm looking for just one or two more good examples of instances where a color somehow changed the world. The examples I have so far are pretty historical, but I'm not necessarily limiting myself to that. To give you an idea of what I'm looking for, here's a couple of the ones I have already: Carmine (red dye) the trade in which was an important impetus to European expansion into the Americas; Mauve, the "invention" of which paved the way for chemistry to take its place as an important science for industry; Red (ochre), the first color used in human art; Indigo, like carmine, was a desired pigment and was instrumental in expanding world trade.

A couple other things I researched, so far fruitlessly, were things like:
The lead in white face paint favored by English royalty at one time, caused health issues. I was looking for a case where that could be linked to the premature death of someone historically important, but I couldn't find anything.
In science, is there any case where a particular breakthrough happened in a way that was somehow related to color. Or is there some important invention that could only exist because of a particular color (as in the mauve example above)

Beyond that, I'm open to other ideas, as long as they're very related to a particular color, and were "world changing".

What I'm not really looking for are cases where a color may be a symbol of something...i.e. Red as a symbol of the Soviet revolution, and, later, communism as a whole. I know that distinction may be a bit arbitrary, but hopefully it makes sense!

Thanks a lot!
posted by Ziggurat to Science & Nature (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Tyrian purple certainly had an impact on the Roman empire, I would think
posted by leotrotsky at 5:51 PM on August 10, 2009

prussian blue -> cyanide ?
posted by bashos_frog at 5:52 PM on August 10, 2009

There's an interesting story with the blue LED, but it hasn't quite changed the world yet.
posted by @troy at 5:55 PM on August 10, 2009

to elaborate slightly, prussian blue led to prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, used in death camps and many notable suicides and poisonings.
posted by bashos_frog at 5:56 PM on August 10, 2009

If you're going to go with indigo, I wonder if blue jeans might make a more interesting story than expanding world trade.
posted by box at 6:01 PM on August 10, 2009

I'm guessing from your phrasing you already know about this book, but in case you don't: the book Mauve: How one man invented a color that changed the world may be of interest. (I haven't read it.)
posted by madcaptenor at 6:09 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Green fluorescent protein has made a lot of current cell biology and biotechnology possible.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:10 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

The book Napoleon's Buttons had a few examples of things like this.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:35 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Guimet and the invention of synthetically manufactured "ultramarine". A large prize was offered for the discovery, and contributed to the development of synthetically manufactured pigments.
posted by effluvia at 7:48 PM on August 10, 2009

On Lead: some historians believe that the lead in the Romans' water pipes contributed to the decline of the empire.

One nickname for lead is "antimony" since it killed monks using it as a pigment for illuminations.

The term "Arsenic and Old Lace" has its origins in tea dancers being poisoned by inhaling arsenic green used to decorate (Schele Green) elaborate dresses.
posted by effluvia at 7:52 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure how you would word this for your article, but the coal tar color industry emerges from the automotive industry. We now have very lightfast colors that are constructed by chemists rather than sourced from nature, so that's a very big engineering change.
posted by effluvia at 7:54 PM on August 10, 2009

"Litharge" would be another good area to pursue on lead. The term "lethargic" sources from this red form of lead being used in various applications.

Apologies for the many posts, I keep thinking of more and I hope some of them are fruitful.
posted by effluvia at 8:16 PM on August 10, 2009

One nickname for lead is "antimony" since it killed monks using it as a pigment for illuminations.
Antimony and lead are entirely distinct chemical elements.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:39 PM on August 10, 2009

You should scout out Victoria Finlay's book, "Color: A Natural History of the Palette" -- interesting stories and some history.
posted by Bet Glenn at 8:46 PM on August 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the ideas so far.
I marked a couple answers as "best", but there's quite a few ideas here that I'm going to research a bit more.

box - great idea. I just did some reading... I had no idea the history of blue jeans is so fascinating.

Madcaptenor - Yeah, I found that as I was researching. Looks cool, though now I have to decide whether or not to change the title of my article, in case anyone thinks I'm being unoriginal...

you're a kitty! - Thanks, that book looks right up my alley.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by Ziggurat at 8:52 PM on August 10, 2009

The Phoenicians were the Mediterranean superpower of their time, around 1200BC; their built their empire upon Tyrian, or royal, purple.
posted by kdar at 11:48 PM on August 10, 2009

Blood is so red.
The Viet Nam war was the first war televised in color. Maybe printed media, also. The color of blood became in your face and in your home. Some think this may have been one of the catalysts for protest.
posted by Acacia at 12:37 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

The revolt against authority of the 1960s, so often attributed to LSD and anti-Vietnam sentiment in the USA, was actually simply a mass rejection of the truly awful, completely ubiquitous Avocado Green and Harvest Gold color schemes favored by mass manufacturers of household appliances, furniture and carpeting. After being raised around all that crap, even dirt floored hippie yurts and the muddy fields of Woodstock looked good to the last of the Boomers.
posted by paulsc at 1:15 AM on August 11, 2009

It's arguable whether it actually counts as colour, but the reddening of galaxies at greater distances changed our view of the origins of the universe - it being a key piece of the evidence for the Big Bang.

Newton's work on colour generally seems to have led to the invention of the reflecting telescope as well.
posted by edd at 2:44 AM on August 11, 2009

I love the story of Mountbatten pink, which was used during World War II to camouflage British destroyers. It's kind of an ugly mauve.
posted by emyd at 3:46 AM on August 11, 2009

International Orange: today's stylish astronaut will not be seen in any other colour.
posted by Sutekh at 3:49 AM on August 11, 2009

I'm guessing from your phrasing you already know about this book, but in case you don't: the book Mauve: How one man invented a color that changed the world may be of interest. (I haven't read it.)

I've read it. Interesting, but a little dry. More about the man than the effect of mauve. But as I recall, mauve was in fashion for a short time in europe.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2009

You mentioned mauve in your introduction already, this is really the daddy of colours that changed the world.

Sir William Perkin discovered Mauveine whilst on his summer vacation from studying chemistry with August Hoffman, in 1856. His intention had been to synthesise Quinine to combat malaria, in this he failed but in a sense the discovery that he did make - the worlds first synthetic dye was far more revolutionary.

Mauveine is significant in three important ways:

Firstly, it is the first real example of theoretical chemistry being industrialised to create a mass market product - up to this point chemistry had been a hobby and not considered a serious wealth creating activity. Indeed the rise of the chemical dyeing industry, where almost all modern chemical company's began, is one of the most clear examples of the second stage of the industrial revolution.

Secondly, as Mauveine was a coal-tar derivative the essential idea of refining complex hydro-carbons is still the underpinning concept of the petro-chemical industry.

Thirdly, Mauveine is important culturally, because for the first time coloured clothing could be mass-produced and therefore mass marketed. It litterally brought colour into many peoples wardrobes for the very first time.

A small bottle of Mauviene stands unobtrusively in The Science Museums hall of British inventions, it is perhaps the smallest object in the whole room. Discounting the DNA helix, which is represented by a 12ft model. But to me it is a very significant and unappreciated invention. (Not least because William Perkin was my great great great uncle).

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World (Paperback) by Simon Garfield has more info, but I object to it because he seems to describe interviews with my Great Grandfather as they had been with him, which is impossible as he died a rather long time ago.
posted by munchbunch at 10:36 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Doh! that last line should say: as if they had been with him*
posted by munchbunch at 10:40 AM on August 11, 2009

John Emsley's book The Elements of Murder describes evidence for the claim that the arsenic used to color his wallpaper green led to Napoleon's death; it's certainly true that a great many people, especially children, were poisoned by the arsenic green pigment in wallpaper. The small amounts of arsenic were converted to deadly trimethylarsine gas by fungus (whose growth was encouraged by the gelatin used as wallpaper sizing plus the starch used as wallpaper paste). Also see the article Killer Wallpaper.

(One reason for the popularity of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper was the lack of bedbugs in rooms papered with it. The bedbugs died, but so, unfortunately, did the children.)
posted by Ery at 5:18 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield was an interesting read about the influence of red on various cultures through history.
posted by Trinkers at 8:51 PM on August 31, 2009

The original casting choice for the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was Buddy Ebsen. The makeup they used to paint him silver - to appear as though he was made of tin - was made of aluminum and made him suffer complete lung failure. He was too sick to play the role and it went to Jack Haley instead. Snopes verified here.
posted by SassHat at 1:52 PM on September 1, 2009

My facts are a little fuzzy but this may be worth researching:
There are some theories that elements of Van Gogh's style (glowing halos around stars and lamps, colours skewing towards yellow, etc) may have been the result of swollen retinas due to lead poisoning from the paints he used. I know, for instance, that some white oil paints still contain a lot of lead to this day- my old roommate used lead white a lot in this paintings, and was very careful not to get white paint in his mouth, on his skin, or on a cigarette while painting.

If all this is true, then the colour white may have indirectly led to expressionism: ie, if white lead paint poisoned Van Gogh, who painted what he saw with his damaged eyes and influenced other painters to start adding emotion to their representations.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:36 AM on September 2, 2009

It's a stretch, but this article points out how using radium paint on the dials of timepieces (eventually) led to regulations. Well, it certainly changed the worlds of those who used it.

And, then David Hahn, the Atomic Boy Scout, was able to use that to get his Atomic Energy Merit Badge toward becoming an Eagle Scout:

I'm not sure that changed the world, really - but the mug shot from his unrelated 2007 arrest pictured there really clarifies what radiation burns look like, when thinking of the former article.
posted by peagood at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2009

I mean, because I kind of consider phosphorescent green a colour...and the glowing dials on watches and control panels had an effect in the trenches and in flying during wartime. Apologies also, for the cheap links - I had to get dinner on the table.
posted by peagood at 6:32 PM on September 5, 2009

Oh! And I don't know how this relates (cheap link again - sorry, it's bedtime), but here was an interesting post on Madder:

- and according to the author, it claims "Madder’s dye agent, alizarin, was the first natural pigment to be synthetically duplicated in 1869" - which you may be able to take as the desire + ability = opened the floodgates.
posted by peagood at 6:38 PM on September 5, 2009

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