Methylated spirits (a.k.a. methylated spirit, spirit, or meths) is a strongly purple-coloured liquid fuel often used to fire "live steam" models, such as model steam locomotives and steam-powered boats. Although mostly composed of ethanol (ethyl alcohol), it is deliberately "denatured" or made poisonous by adding a quantity of undrinkable methyl alcohol, and is dyed purple to make it obvious that it is not for consumption.
The creation of methylated spirit as a legally accepted product solved previous supply problems for companies that wanted to use purified alcohol for industrial purposes. For instance, previously, if the Royal Navy needed to carry out a test of a batch of supplied gunpowder that involved mixing it with alcohol before burning it, they'd need to be reasonably sure of the purity of the alcohol, and there were stories about the RN acquiring quantities of red wine, presumably to try to distil out the alcohol themselves.
Any company caught setting up a still for distilling alcohol was liable to be eyed with great suspicion by the Customs and Excise who would have been likely to take the view that the only reason for distilling alcohol was to drink it. In theory, one could power small steam-powered toys by burning high-strength brandy, but given that drinkable spirits were highly taxed, this wasn't financially a great idea.
The introduction of methylated spirit, definitely too poisonous to drink, not liable to liquor tax, and easily recognised by its violently purple colour, created a whole new market for alcohol as a convenient liquid fuel (and as something that could be bought in DIY shop as a convenient solvent for cleaning paint off brushes).
The do seem to be references to methylated spirit itself (conventional ethyl "drinking alcohol" with around ten percent of poisonous ethyl alcohol added) being used before this -- a company storing stocks of industrial-grade ethanol might be tempted to deliberately poison it to prevent it being stolen or drunk by employees -- but it wasn't until the unexpected appearance of Perkins' new alcohol-soluble purple dye in the 1850s that suddenly everything fell into place to allow industry and lawmakers to be able come to an amicable agreement.
The mauve dye used to colour methylated spirit was patented by William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) in 1856.
Mauvine was the first of the synthetic aniline dyes, and was discovered accidentally and promptly patented by Perkin when he was only 18, working as a lab assistant for the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann who was trying to see if he could hit on a method for synthesising the antimalarial drug quinine.
Perkin, who had an interest in pigments and photography, started doing his own unofficial experiments in a garden shed, and on accidentally ending up with a compound that was incredibly purple, set about working out how to use it to dye fabrics, the existing "proper" purple dye being a horribly expensive substance extracted from shellfish and usually reserved for Royalty because of its price.
Perkin went on to make a fortune from the dye, which launched a Victorian craze for purple silk.
The point of "methylation" was to make the result undrinkable, which allowed it to be sold as a liquid fuel without the normal taxes that were payable on alcoholic drinks, and 1856 was also the year that a report was made to the Inland Revenue recommending that methylated spirit be given special tax status.
The resulting comparative cheapness of methylated spirit encouraged the production of small steam-powered scientific toys, and new spirit-burning lamps and related products that would be uneconomical to run using expensive conventional "drinking" spirits – Theodor Märklin started the business that would grow into the toymaking giant Märklin by making toy cooking stoves, in 1859.
Methylated spirits also led to a number of scandals and new legislation in the 1860s when it was found that some unscrupulous chemists were using the cheaper but poisonous "methylated" products in place of pure ethyl alcohol when making medicines.
Links and References
- Reports on the Successful Application of Methylated Spirit,. to various purposes in the Arts, Manufactures, and Scientific Research, in 1856; addressed to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue
- William Henry Perkin (wikipedia.org)