AP5: Of Snails and Purple Dye

25 Feb 2012

“Do you smell something burning?”

This question sounded in an empty chemistry lab 150 years ago in 1856.

2 English chemists were trying to find the cure for malaria, one of the world’s most widespread diseases at that time. Hoffman, the older of the 2, was leading the research while his student William Perkin helped out.




William was a chemistry prodigy; he entered university at 15, much earlier than the most of us! Now, he is part of Hoffman’s prestigious team of university researchers, on a breakthrough study that can save the world!


[low-pitched, gruff voice] “When something’s burning, it usually means the experiment had FAILED. Clean up while I find out what went wrong.” Hoffman commanded. William thought: “oh man, another test-tube to clean!”

That day’s experiment was a particularly bad failure. As he looked down into the test tube, he saw a disgusting black gooey substance, like mucus from a smoker’s lung, coloured black with tar.

He started rinsing with water, it did not budge. He tried scrubbing but it still did not move! It was as stubborn as super glue!

At last, William gave up and used his teacher’s expensive alcohol. “I really hope this works!” I want to invent the medicine for malaria and save the world, not be stuck here washing test-tubes!

At last, the black thing got smaller when it was washed with alcohol! William was elated as he looked at the alcohol flowing down the drain, it was as bright and brilliantly purple as the freshest violets, and most importantly took some of the black sludge away with it. “Good riddance!”

Hoffman, his teacher came back rubbing his hands “William! finished washing? GOOD!” The 2 of them continued their next experiment, after all Hoffman always says “If you try and fail, try again!”

(move to stage left)

At home that night, William was telling Thomas, his younger brother about the black sludge and purple dye it caused. Thomas immediately piped up [high voice] “I’ve never seen purple so close. Only the King can afford to wear it.” (pause) “William do you think, just think, that we can dye purple cloth from it? Imagine, purple cloth!”

Purple dyes were collected from the mucus of snails at that time, and each snail only had so much mucus. So, only the incredibly rich, like the King, can afford to wear it. Thomas was excited!

To think of all the purple cloth they can make! They can wrap their entire house in purple, not even the King does that! But William said “No, I am finding the cure for malaria, not some sort of colouring! I’m a chemist! I must help the world!” [in Thomas’s high-pitched voice] “But since you already have it, can you please try, please please? It is an opportunity too, why don’t we grab it?”

(pause, freezing in Thomas’s action of hands outstretched)

(move to stage right)

The next day, William went to Mr. Hoffman, telling him about the possibility of making a dye, from the black sludge of yesterday. “No, we are here to cure malaria, I have too much to do to help you. if you want to be silly, do it yourself. But you would have to leave my research team. Choose yours own path.”

(move to stage center)

What should William do? Should he continue with the prestigious research team at the university? Or should he take his chances with the unknown purple substance?


3 years and many experiments later, William and Thomas are the proud owners of a dye factory in Scotland, using mauvine to produce purple clothes for the whole of England. Everyone could now wear purple and the poor snails were no longer needed.

When he discovered mauvine, which is the purple dye made from the black sludge, William Henry Perkin was just 18. He went to become an established chemist, but he never discovered the cure for malaria. Instead, he found other dyes, like Britannia Violet and Perkin’s Green. William Perkin directly contributed all the coloured clothes we are wearing today. Because of him, we can have many colourful fabrics, whether cotton or silk, to wear any colour whenever we want. Can you imagine if we still had to use snail mucus and leaves to colour our clothes?

William’s teacher, wanted to leave his impact on the world by persevering on one thing. And he did, although he never discovered the cure for malaria, he is well known for many breakthroughs in his field of research.

William had decisively jumped at something he thought was an opportunity and succeeded in bettering the life of others through chemistry. Hoffman had also led the way in chemistry research.

One of them succeeded with persistence, one with flexibility. Do we want to be William or Mr. Hoffman? But the most important thing is, they both tried and tried. Some people think that ‘fail and try again’ is the secret to success, but trying, failing and trying to make use of that failure may also lead to victory.

In any case, try and fail but don’t fail to try!

Toastmaster of the day.


This is a AP5 speech from the Storytelling Manual, Bringing History to Life.


Evaluation by Michael Chang

8 min 27 secs

There were two morals of the story,


  1. Can try and fail but do not fail to try
  2. We can succeed through persistence like Hoffman or flexibility like William
William was well developed as a character, with a background (chemistry prodigy) but Hoffman could be better characterized.
Effective use of description and dialogue in the story. Vocal variety observed during the dialogues and gestures were natural and appropriate.
A commendable speech. Keep up the good efforts and well done!



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