Today, Prussian Blue. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
are two related books: Thomas Berger's 1910
account of his great-great-grandfather, Lewis Berger, and the family's
historic paint factory. The other is Michel Pastoureau's book on the
color Blue. Berger's book begins in 1760 with Louis Steinberger
moving to London from Frankfurt. He carries with him a new method for
making the paint pigment we call Prussian Blue. He's soon selling
pigments and other commodities. Then he marries an English woman and
changes his name to Lewis Berger.
The other book is all about blue pigments, which were hard to create.
We find no blue in Neolithic cave paintings and it's rare in art of the
ancient world. I visited a medieval book preservationist,
a while back, and found him laboriously grinding up lapis lazuli as his
first step in creating authentic medieval blue ink.
The rich color called Prussian Blue came into being by accident in the very
early 18th century. A Berlin pigment-maker bought some potash to use in
making his red pigment. His supplier, a scoundrel named Dippel, sent him
a bad batch. Lo and behold, it yielded a brilliant blue instead of red.
When Dippel learned what'd happened, he began selling the new pigment.
He called it Berlin Blue, and claimed to've made it with his
Then a British chemist named Woodward identified it as potassium ferric
cyanide. Dippel's secret was out. Bankrupted, he went to Sweden and
somehow became the King's physician. His lethal medications got him kicked
out of Sweden. He eventually landed in a Danish prison; but he'd launched an
Prussian Blue swatch (courtesy of Wikipedia)
But, back to Lewis Berger: He became a premier British pigment supplier.
He also developed a brilliant green. Some of those paints proved to be
unstable over time. However the business prospered. Great-great-grandson
Thomas's book is an unabashed puff piece, no doubt, but small bombshells
appear. One grandson was an artist -- perhaps a better artist than chemist.
He was working in the company lab one day and suffering from a raging
toothache. Seeking relief, he reached for the wrong bottle and poisoned himself.
Berger's colors were used on structures as well as canvas -- for house paint and oil
paint alike. They account for the
eerie blue skies of landscape artist J. M. W. Turner. They were used by impressionists who followed
him. But Thomas Berger is better tuned to the beauty of his company. It's no
surprise that my copy is inscribed, not to an artist, but to a supplier.
Well, I can't fault him for that. His first concern had to be with the product.
Indeed, my first familiarity with Prussian Blue came not from Turner, nor the
impressionists. It came from the blueprints that lay at
the center of my early life. The designer who created
the cover of my latest book
must've sensed that. For his palette, he chose the dark-hued Prussian blue of
the old drawings -- those blueprints to the construction of our brave new 20th
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. B. Berger, A Century & a Half of the House of Berger. (London: Waterlow & Sons Ltd., 1910)
M. Pastoureau, Blue: The History of a Color. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)
More on Prussian Blue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_blue
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.