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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Caffeine and Color

The story behind colors takes one to many different places. It is a story of people and their personal accomplishments. This one is from the ever-fascinating chapter on human inquisitiveness, illustrating that no matter what you put in front of an ambitious scientist, they will analyze it. This scientist was Ferdinand Runge.

Runge was born near Hamburg, Germany in 1795. At an early age, Runge demonstrated a propensity for scientific discovery. This must have been a child whose parents worried that he would set the house on fire or blow it up. I imagine Ferdinand’s father coming home from work asking, “So Ferdinand, what did you do today son?” Ferdinand would reply, “I worked out an improved formula for gunpowder and tested it on the cat to see how far it would fly! I am still working out some of the difficulties, but it shows great promise.” Needless to say, Ferdinand likely had a problem keeping family pets from running away. Ferdinand Runge was a scientist at the right place and time. His claim to fame is a bit obscure but has an interesting thematic thread running through it. Ferdinand worked with a number of potentially dangerous chemicals and tamed them to do his bidding. Even in his youth, he accidentally observed how belladonna, one of the species of deadly nightshade plants could dilate biological tissue. Any of us who, decades ago, had an appointment with an ophthalmologist or optometrist have experienced the mydriatic effects of the chemical used to conduct eye examinations. Tropicamide is now used in place of Belladonna.

The talent Runge displayed with the effects of belladonna did not go unnoticed. Ferdinand was studying under the chemist Doebreiner who caught the attention of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe was a poet, amateur chemist and botanist. Artists and art historians may be more familiar with Goethe as a color theorist. His color model is the subject of much discussion since it has both physical and psychological mapping of color space. Goethe appears to be a character who had a finger in everything. I am sure he would have liked to achieve the lofty goal of learning and exploring so much so that he could lay claim to being a man who knew “everything.” Throughout history, the building of great libraries and book collections endeavored to capture the entire world’s knowledge in one location so that, if possible, all that could be learned would reside in one place. It is not too farfetched to think that ambitious human beings with an incredible appetite for knowledge would attempt to scale that intellectual “Mount Everest” and attempt to load as much knowledge into themselves as possible. Goethe seems to fit this profile. Fortunately, he inspired and rallied those around him to work toward discovering the mysteries of the world as well. Goethe, impressed with Runge’s investigation of belladonna, gave Runge a small box of Arabian mocha coffee beans and told him to analyze them. What Goethe was looking for in those beans and what Runge though about the task is unknown. However, Runge was the first to isolate a chemical in coffee that is familiar to us all. Runge’s discovery of caffeine could have been the opening and closing chapter on a career well spent in the pursuit of knowledge and no one would have thought the lesser of Ferdinand’s achievements.

As previously stated, the drive for exploration runs deep in some souls. Runge’s story does not end with isolating caffeine. Runge went on to more discoveries in the world of purine chemistry. Questionable sources credit him with discovering quinine, a drug used to combat malaria. Setting this aside, Runge experimented with a number of materials in the growing world of coal tar products that form the basis for a broad number of dye colors. (I bet you were wondering by now when this essay would get to a connection to art materials.) The distillation of bituminous coal would launch the careers of a number of scientists and Runge was no exception. It was a scientific “gold rush” to break down the distillation products of coal and find the hidden materials within. One of Runge’s most notable discoveries was the isolation of a blue aniline dye that became the basis for artificial indigo. Discovery of an artificial way of circumventing a laborious, hand processed method to obtain natural dyes seems to always create a dramatic ripple effect on commerce and society. Artificial dyes reshape the industrial landscape as abundant raw materials can be transformed into colorants without the fear of uncontrollable situations in countries far away. Indigo dyers adopting aniline blue can put aside fears that cargo ships will sink or monsoons will ruin crops and make scarce the materials they need to color cloth. Runge teased out several of the derivatives of coal tar materials with the isolation of pyrrole and phenol. He discovered paper chromatography and did further work with belladonna to uncover the chemical atropine. It seems ironic that the man who isolated atropine, a medical muscle relaxant would also be the one who finds caffeine. I suppose one could say that Ferdinand Runge could be called a pioneer of physiological drugs. The family of alkaloid compounds that brought the miracle of morphine to stave the pain of injury or disease, quinine that treated malaria and atropine for muscles have roots in Runge’s experiments. Runge never reaped the benefits of his discoveries. From his encounter with Goethe in 1819, he moved on to study chemistry and obtain his doctorate. He taught chemistry at the University of Breslau until 1831. For the next 22 years he worked for a chemical company but was fired by a new plant owner who did not agree with Runge’s suggestions. His life ended in 1867. He died in poverty and obscurity. Had Runge and Goethe been a bit more enterprising, they could have done something interesting with caffeine. Maybe they did and kept it a secret. No wonder Goethe knew so much about so many disciplines. He probably never slept because he stayed awake on energy drinks. Goethe probably said, “Ferdinand, hand me another one of those Roter Stiers you’ve been making in your kitchen.”

The Syntax of Color

(First Published, March 2006, Volume 2. No. 3 Grammar of Color essay – Revised September 2021)

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