The word chromatography, reveals its origins – in the beginning of the 20th century, Mikhail Tsvet – color compounds. The modern stable of robust, tunable separation techniques (i.e., chromatography) is probably one of the most important things chemistry has given us – and it’s only a hundred years old. Today, chromatography is used mostly to separate compounds without any visible color at all!
It’s hard, however, to understate the importance of dyes in the development of modern chemistry. We take colored fabrics completely for granted today, but dyes used to be a luxury. Dyes, too, also drove the development of modern pharmaceuticals (this isn’t extremely surprising – most drugs and dyes are aromatic small molecules of some kind). Some papers (often older ones) belie the colorful origin of many modern pharmaceuticals by referring to their studied prototype drug as a “dye.”
One seminal synthetic dye – in fact, the first reproduction of a natural one – is alizarin.
Alizarin is a pigment found in the madder root, which was used as a dye throughout essentially all of history. From King Tut, to Charlemagne, to the vikings, the madder root was used as a dyestuff until the 1860′s. Then, a synthetic route was discovered, starting from anthracene – dirt cheap stuff you can get from coal tar. Even with 19th century techniques and supply stocks, the new pigment was half as expensive as the natural stuff, and the market for a plant that had been cultivated for millenia promptly collapsed.
These new-fangled chemists were on to something.