Friday, May 17, 2019

The Red Velvet Cake Effect

I recently stumbled upon a video this week where the speaker described experiments where the presence of color tricked participants into tasting flavors that weren't there. The idea seems preposterous. How can flavorless food coloring impart taste?

How Color Affects Taste, Prof. William Lidwell of University of Houston

As odd as this may seem, it must be true. I mean, I found another video on YouTube that makes the same general claim: "Soft drinks that are blue are considered to be more thirst quenching, whereas soft drinks that are pink are considered to be more sugary, even if they're not." There are not one, but two guys who are articulate, sound intelligent, and have the massive funding required to produce a YouTube video on this topic, so who am I to question their veracity?

The Taste of Color, Trace, for DNews

A little googling turned up similar results. For example, two manufacturers of color measurement devices have blog posts on the topic. Here is a quote from the blog post from Konica Minolta:

"In a study published in the Journal of Food Science, researchers found that people confused flavors when a drink did not have the appropriate color. A cherry-flavored drink manipulated to be orange in color was thought to taste like an orange drink, and a cherry drink manipulated to be green in color was thought to taste like lime."
How Color Affects Your Perception of Food

A blog post from HunterLab points to an important distinction between how color affects our expectation of taste and how color affects our perception when we taste. "[We] constantly evaluate foods based on their hue, from checking if the meat is still red to guessing an avocado is ripe when its skin becomes dark green."

The author goes on to say "Color is so powerful that [it] can override what our other senses are telling us to be true, causing us to taste sweetness that isn’t really there, experience flavors that aren’t present."
Examining the Science Behind Color Perception of Food Flavor and Quality

I'm going to invent a name for this phenomenon: The Red Velvet Cake Effect. The rich flavor of red velvet cake is is an olfactory illusion which is caused by the flavorless red food coloring. At least that's what my wife told me. Again, who am I to question?

Ok. Maybe that's not exactly true. The action of an acid (from vinegar or buttermilk) on natural cocoa imparts a red color to this cake, and this acid probably has an effect on the flavor. But pretty much all recipes for red velvet cake also include red food coloring. Why do this? The red food coloring in the cake tricks us into thinking that the cake is richer in flavor. Or maybe the cake really is richer in flavor?

These are not criticisms

Let me preface my next comments -- the comments about the aforementioned videos and blog posts. I don't mean for my comments to be criticism.

The first three of these reports are infotainment -- journalism targeted to inform and entertain. It is not expected that they go into details about how the experiments were performed. There is no talk of qualification of participants, a control group, accounting for the placebo effect, or the statistical relevance of the results. To go into such details would defeat the purpose of entertaining. Who wants to wade through boring details when all they want from the article is a factoid that they can share at the local tavern?

It's a little known fact that Cliff Clavin never actually said this.
It comes from a John the Math Guy blog post on vermillion.

Another shortcoming of the preceding infotainment  (with no criticism implied) is that none of the first three give specific reference to the experiments. Again, I am not being critical, but the articles don't offer a lot of help to the person who is a bit more than just curious. How can they find the technical paper on the topic?

Let me make this clear. I am not criticizing the first three. Infotainment is a great thing, and these are great examples of infotainment. But let's take them for what they are. Suppose you are president of the American Broccoli Growers Association, and I need to decide whether to fund research for a plant geneticist who wants to adjust the cruciferous color so as to make kids go wild about the taste of broccoli. You really need to research beyond the infotainment articles.

I commend the HunterLab article for moving from infotainment into the realm of edutainment. The article educates as well as entertains. There is a clear explanation of what experiments were performed and how they can be interpreted. And the technical papers and experts are identified so an interested reader can go out to find additional details.

But... I wonder if is there some selection bias in the choice of research papers that have been cited? Do other experiments confirm these conclusions? In true John the Math Guy style, I have done a borderline-obsessive amount of digging to get to the true flavor of this question, not colored by any preconceived notions.

Does the color of the food itself change the taste?

I followed the HunterLab link to an actual research paper from 1980. Here is what a quote from that paper:

"Results showed that color masking dramatically decreased flavor identification of fruit-flavored beverages, while atypical colors induced incorrect flavor responses that were characteristically associated with the atypical color. In addition, the color level of beverages had significant effects on their overall acceptability, acceptability of color and of flavor, as well as on flavor intensity."
Effects of Colorants and Flavorants on Identification, Perceived Flavor Intensity, and Hedonic Quality of Fruit‐Flavored Beverages and Cake

Only with a blindfold could Sherlock tell that all the glasses contained prune juice

Here is another research paper demonstrating that the taste of sweet beverages can be "flavored" by color.

"The results of the present experiment corroborate the findings of the previous experiments, demonstrating the influence of color on taste perception"
"... subjects in the present study were moved by the color stimuli to completely misjudge the flavor of the substance being tasted (calling the birch beer such things as "cherry soda" or "cream soda")."
The influence of color on the taste perception of carbonated water preparations

And yet another...
"Both the colour of the cider itself and the colour of the label significantly influenced perceived flavour and hedonic response to the ciders."
Cross-modal influence of colour from product and packaging alters perceived flavour of cider

Oh! I gotta get me some of that Hedonic Response Cider!

The only fruit-flavored beverage that I drink is wine, so I kinda don't care. The HunterLab article anticipated my predilections so they also mentioned a blog post of theirs that talked about color and wine. That second blog post summarized an experiment where researchers tried to trick professional wine tasters by adding flavorless red food coloring to white wines. The deceit was successful.

"A white wine artificially colored red with an odorless dye was olfactory described as a red wine by a panel of 54 tasters. Hence, because of the visual information, the tasters discounted the olfactory information."
The color of odors

My wife's favorite whine is "I want to go to Miami!"

It is a little known fact that olfactory means "relating to the sense of smell."

This was a bit of a disappointment to me, since I know that, all scientific research aside, I prefer red wines! I probably don't like Riesling, but I'm not sure. I've never riesled.

As you may expect, beer is also important to me. And I know that dark beer is way more better than a an icky sickly pale yellow pilsner. But if two beers differ only in color, does my eye convince my tongue and nose that the beer that is richer in color is also richer in flavor? I can't count the number of times that I have lain awake at night pondering that question!

Interestingly, experiments with beer haven't been as conclusive. The quote below is a bit complicated, but here is what I think it says: If someone is a Miller Lite kinda guy, they are more apt to be fooled by a little brown food coloring. I believe this, but only because it fits my preconceived notion that people who drink light beer are less sophisticated than I am.

"When the participants evaluated the expectations and tasting experience of the two different beers ... (pale vs. dark), after tasting, those who preferred pale beers, rated the darker beer as tasting sweeter than those who usually prefer other types of beers, such as dark ones..."
Dark vs light drinks The influence of visual appearance on the consumer's experience of beer

The Lovibond scale is used to assess beer color

One finding of the next experiment (below), is that before the mug comes to my lips, I expect that a beer with a rich brown color will be richer in flavor than a light yellow beer. Well, duh. The important part of this research is that when I actually taste the beer, my palate will not be fooled.

"Dark and pale beers were evaluated both before and after tasting. Importantly, these beers were indistinguishable in terms of their taste/flavor when tasted without any visual cues. The results indicate that the differing visual appearance of the beers led to clear differences in expected taste/flavor. However, after tasting, no differences in flavor ratings were observed, indicating that the expectations based on visual cues did not influence the actual tasting experience."
The Influence of Color on the Consumer's Experience of Beer

So, let's move on to chocolate, another place where I like to brag about my superior tastes. In my opinion, milk chocolate is for the hoi polloi. Having an affinity for dark chocolate shows that you have culture. But, at least according to this research, my false snobbery can be exposed with a little brown food coloring in the outer candy shell of an M&M. And even worse, just calling  the little rabbit pellets dark chocolate will fool me. Really? Am I that easily misled!?!?!? 

"The participants rated brown M&Ms as being significantly more chocolatey than green M&Ms and “dark chocolate”-labeled M&Ms as being significantly more chocolatey than “milk chocolate”-labeled ones."
The Influence of Color and Label Information on Flavor Perception

I like my chocolate just like my used motor oil - dark and flavorful

This sampling of research papers suggests that color can suggest taste, but that might not always be the case.

Does the color of the plate or cup influence the flavor?

I want to investigate a phrase from the cider experiments which I skipped over: "and the colour of the label". The cider house rules apparently extend beyond the color of what goes into your mouth. The effect on flavor of the color of the coffee mug seems to be fairly well researched. And the research seems to be heavily weighted toward verification of the Red Velvet Cake Effect. I have some quotes below.

"The results revealed that the colour of the cup exerted a significant influence on both pre- and post-tasting ratings for all attributes measured."
Cup colour influences consumers' expectations and experience on tasting specialty coffee

"... the coffee was rated as less sweet in the white mug as compared to the transparent and blue mugs."
Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?

"The colour of the cup, for instance, has been shown to prime notions of sweetness (e.g., pink cup) or acidity (e.g., yellow or green cup) that may carry over to influence the tasting experience."

"Given that different styles/varieties of specialty coffee have different dominant/desirable qualities (e.g., acidity/sweetness), in the future, the design of coffee cups may need to be customized for different coffee drinking experiences (e.g., origin or roast), much as seen in the world of fine wine (with different glasses for different grape varieties)."
Assessing the influence of the coffee cup on the multisensory tasting experience

Choose your cup wisely, it will affect the taste of the coffee

Seems pretty conclusive that the Red Velvet Cake Effect extends to coffee mugs. But are pastries on plates any different from red velvet chocolate? Apparently so.

"[No] main effects of the plate colour on the evaluations of greasiness, crunchiness, creaminess, and sweetness [of pastries], as well as the hedonic value and purchase intent in stage 1 and stage 2 could be found."
Visual merchandising of pastries in foodscapes: The influence of plate colours on consumers’ flavour expectations and perceptions

But the color of the plate has a clear effect on the sweetness of strawberry mousse.

"Specifically, we investigated the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of flavor intensity, sweetness, quality, and liking for identical strawberry mousse desserts.The results demonstrated that while the color of the plate exerted a significant influence on people’s perception of the food, the shape of the plate did not. In particular, when the mousse was served from a white plate, it was perceived as significantly more intense and sweeter, and was also liked more."
Is it the plate or is it the food? Assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it

Choose the plate wisely if the dessert is red velvet cake or strawberry mousse,
leave the ugly plates for pastries

I'm not sure what to make of all this. I am getting a bit peckish for dessert, though.

Survey papers

This limited research has led to some conflicting conclusions. I have browsed through a dozen papers and found that most (but not all) confirmed the Red Velvet Cake Effect. I readily admit that my sampling of technical journals on flavor science has not been thorough. Basically, I have only earned my associates degree in Velvet Cake from Google University. In particular, I would expect that my research would be biased in favor of papers that support the surprising results.

It is a little known fact that red food coloring might be made from Hemipterates (the order of true bugs, in the class Insecta) like the cochineal or kermes vermilio, but that Starbucks has pledged to stop using the natural dyes that are made from insects.

To get a better perspective, I will have a look at scholarly review papers.

Charles Spence (from Oxford) is a prolific author on the Red Velvet Cake Effect. (I say this despite the fact that he has not, to my knowledge, used this phrase. I am sure he will start using it when he reads this blog post.) Here are a few of his papers which provide an overview of a little bit of the research that he has reviewed. When I say "a little bit", I mean... well... the first paper has about three pages of references. The second one has 170 references. I should live long enough to read that many research papers.

Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans
On the psychological impact of food colour
Background colour & its impact on food perception & behaviour

Spence (In his paper "Does Food Color...") makes the following statement:

"Does food coloring influence taste and flavor perception in humans? Although researchers have been investigating this important (both on a theoretical and practical level) question for more than 70 years now (see Duncker 1939; Masurovsky 1939; Moir 1936 for early research), an unequivocal answer to the question has not, as yet, been reached."

Ahhh... that explains the confusing results that I found! Then he goes on to burst my bubble.

"That, at least, would seem to be the conclusion drawn by the majority of researchers in the field."

Slicing the onion thinner

When I asked her for the color of the car, she said it was the color of an onion

Anyone who has passed an intermediate level course in "how to lie with statistics" will recognize that the answer you get depends a great deal on the precise phrasing of the question. There are a number of different but related questions that a Red Velvet Cake Effect experiment could address:

1) Does the color of the food influence my expectation of taste before I sample the food?

2) Does the color of the food influence whether I can correctly identify a given food?

3) Does the color of the food influence my assessment of the intensity of the taste of the food (the gustatory effect)?

4) Does the color of the food influence my assessment of the intensity of the flavor of the food (the olfactory effect)?

Wait... Aren't 3) and 4) the same question? Maybe to you and I taste and flavor mean the same thing, but to people who are really into the science of taste and smell, there is a distinction. Taste is the thing that we do with our tongue when we are not sticking out at people we dislike. We can distinguish only five distinct tastes with our tongue: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (which means something like savory).

I never developed much of a taste for relativity

Flavor, on the other hand, is detected in the nose. To make things even more complicated, this olfactory (smell) component might be administered orthonasally (though the nose, as when someone pretentiously sticks their nose in a wine glass to detect the nose of the wine), or it may be administered retronasally (through the mouth, like when you take a sip of the wine).

The nose of a wine is best sensed in near silhouette conditions
with clouds and mountains in the background.
Pretentiousness is accentuated by an "I forgot to shave for the past four days" beard.  

As an aside, a true oenophile (which is French for priggish wine snob) will tell you that the best way to tell the nose of a wine is to take a sip, spit it out, and then exhale through your nose. This is an example of retronasal olfaction. A true Wisconsinite like myself would be aghast at the thought of spitting out something that contains alcohol.

Now, how did Spence answer the four questions?

Spence summarized one experiment having to do with the first question. British and Taiwanese participants were asked what they expected a colored beverage to taste like. The Brits overwhelmingly (14 out of 20) expected a brown beverage to taste like cola. None of the 15 Taiwanese participants expected a cola taste - grape, mulberry, and cranberry were their choices. So, the answer to the first question is "yes", but the expectation is culturally dependent.

According to Spence, the answer to the second question is unequivocal. Color influences identification of foods.

According to Spence, the experiments that address the third question do not give consistent results. According to me, the combinations (which colors have an effect on which of the four tastes) is confusing.

According to Spence, the answer to the fourth question is clear cut. Color does flavor our sense of flavor.

Charles Spence, Food Scientist

So, I conclude that the two videos and two blog posts mentioned way back at the start of this blog post are pretty decent in their portrayal of the science behind the Red Velvet Cake Effect. They didn't quite catch all the nuances and slightly contradictory results, but we can't expect everyone to produce blog posts that are as long and boring as this one!

If you have read up to this point, I leave you with a well deserved factoid: The flavor and taste of red velvet cake is most likely due (at least in part) to the red food coloring, which might be manufactured from bugs.

Updated June 3, 2019 - In my haste to pat myself on the back for knowing that Umami has moderately recently been acknowledged as a member of the Taste Bud Band, I neglected another key member of the band, Salty Dog. I have corrected the blog accordingly. Thanks to Robin Myers for pointing this out to me. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What city in Italy is the color magenta named after?

I have asked this question in my color classes, Inevitably, I get no answer, or answers like Rome? Venice? Flagstaff? I then ask some rhetorical questions: "When was the war of 1812?" "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" "What is the color of a red dress?" and "Who is the greatest color scientist who ever lived?" This will often prompt one of the more adventurous students to take a wild guess at the answer to the magenta question. For the time being, I will keep you in suspense about the answer cuz I got a little story to tell.

Tyrian purple

The story starts around 1600 BCE with a special purple dye that has been made from the rock snail for several millennia. It takes a lot of these snails to dye all your hankies. Like, a lot of snails. Like jillions of the little guys. About a quarter of a million of these mollusks had to be sacrificed to yield one ounce of Tyrian purple dye. As a result the dye was incredibly expensive - it was literally worth more than its weight in gold.

But it was a distinctive color and it was fade resistant, so fabrics dyed with Tyrian purple were prized by people who had more money than they knew what to do with. Purple is thus associated with royalty. This association grew draconian in fourth century Rome, when no one but the emperor would be caught dead wearing Tyrian purple. Literally. The punishment for wearing Tyrian purple was death.

The rock snail (Murex bandaris), and Tyrian purple

The royalties purple fetish did not return until 1857 with the wife of Napoleon II, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. She was the fashionista that all of France turned their eyes to. She fixated on purple, which was then available in one dye that was derived from lichen, and another dye called murexide, in homage to the Murex family of mollusks. It was not made from mollusks. We'll get back to that.

The industrial revolution ushered in a new form of affluence -- money and power that was not associated with family lines and land ownership. Entrepreneurs built factories that made stuff that people bought... enter a burgeoning middle class. With that middle class came the need for stuff to buy to show off one's affluenza. Since Kohler had yet to offer the Numi toilet (with Bluetooth and an intuitive touch-screen remote), that need had to be met by fashionable clothes.


Noe, back to the source of murexide purple, as I promised. Murexide was first derived in the 1830's from the uric acid found in snake droppings. (Please try to avoid snickering at this. It is most unprofessional.) Apparently the commercialization of this was hindered by the unwillingness of snakes to produce sufficient quantities of excrement. It wasn't until the 1850's, when Europe was importing large quantities of the finest Peruvian bird poop (stop it!) for fertilizer, that would-be murexide producers found a source for the raw materials. Calling the raw material guano only enhanced the desirability of murexide.

A hard day's work in the guano mines

The beautiful color was lightfast (it didn't fade in sunlight like many dyes) but it unfortunately lost its color on exposure to the acidic air of urban life.  The burning of coal soured the air. Still, the European taste for purple had been whetted by bird poop. (I consider that last sentence to be my finest contribution to the field of chromo-scatalogical humor. Feel free to snicker at that.)

But all good times must come to an end. Sadly by 1881, books were being written about the end of the Golden Age of Guano in Peru [see Duffield, for example]. I should note that the decline in the guano market was not so much due to dwindling murexide production as it was the availability of cheaper commercial fertilizers that were locally grown. Modern day politicians should take note of the problems with basing an economy on guano.

"Excuse me Math Guy, what does this have to do with magenta?"
"Hang on, I'm getting to that."

Coal tar

I mentioned the burning of coal in connection with the downfall of murexide purple. In an example of "that which taketh away, also giveth", coal was to indirectly lead to the purples that replaced murexide. So, I may seem to be taking a detour to talk about coal, but trust me. It all ties together in the end.

A compound known as coke was being used to fuel the voracious iron smelting operations in England. Coal has lots of impurities, but coke is mostly pure carbon, so it burns faster and hotter than coal. It is manufactured by heating coal in an absence of oxygen. When it is heated, the carbon in the coal cannot burn due to insufficient oxygen. The impurities in the coal exit either as a gas (coal gas) or as a liquid (coal tar).

Coal gas is a mixture of flammable gases such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. Around 1800, a fellow by the name of William Murdock hit on the idea of running the coal gas through pipes to places where it could be burned to produce light. In a792, his home in Cornwall was the first house to be lit at night with gas light. Making use of this byproduct of coke production soon became a business in its own right. By 1812 the British parliament chartered the Gas Light and Coke Company of Westminster, London as a utility company to provide coal gas for lighting.

So, a profitable use had been made of coal gas. How about the liquid byproduct? Coal tar (as one might guess from the name) is a thick black liquid -- the kind of thing you just want to dump into the river in order to make it someone else's problem. But it is also an organic chemist's playground, consisting of over 10,000 different chemicals.

Looking forward to a thick, rich cuppa Joe

Over the coming decades, curious chemists extracted a number of interesting organic compounds from coal tar, including naphthalene (1819), anthracine (1832), and in 1834, both phenol and aniline. I'm not going to get into the utility of the first two, but the latter two are relevant to this story because they could be turned into pigments.

In 1842, a process was discovered whereby nitric acid was added to phenol to create a yellow pigment called picric acid. This was a pretty color bu the pigment lacked commercial success since it was neither lightfast nor resistant to washing. It has found much better use as an explosive. And really, who doesn't want an explosive that has a pretty color?

Aniline, on the other hand, led to the development of many important pigments.

"You mean, like magenta?"
"Please be patient. I'm still setting the stage."


1856 London. William Henry Perkin was a mere lad of 18 when he started experimenting with aniline in the hope of finding a way to synthesize quinine. Quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree of South America, and was devilishly expense. It is used to treat malaria, and as a result, it is found in the ever-popular drink gin and tonic. British folks in India were known to contract malaria just to get treated with gin and tonics. But a wise man once said that the bark of the cinchona tree is devilishly expensive. Suffice it to say, a cheap alternative to the manufacture of quinine was a worthy goal for the young Perkin.

Two authors have commented on the naivete of Perkin in one of his experiments. Philip Ball has this to say:

[In one experiment] all he obtained was a reddish-brown sludge. Organic chemists quickly become familiar with this type of reaction -- generally it means the reagents have combined to give an unintelligible mess that is best flushed down the sink.

Garfield explains Perkin's naive tenacity this way:

Most chemists, particularly those trained by Hofmann at the Royal College, would have thrown the reddish-brown powder into a rubbish bin, and begun again.

But Perkin inquisitively continued this utter waste of time with aniline and arrived at a fabulous purple. He dyed a piece of silk with the chemical and was delighted by the brilliant color and the fact that it didn't readily fade. The image below shows sample of silk that was dyed by Perkin in 1860, and which now resides at the Smithsonian. Not Perkin; the sample of silk resides there.

Perkin initially dubbed his dye Tyrian purple, but later settled on mauve, which is the French name for the mallow flower. The chemical is also known as aniline purple, aniline violet,  mauveine, chrome violet, indisin, Perkin's violet, purpurin, rosolane, and violein. There is no dearth of invented words in the field of industrial color production.

The mallow flower

The timing couldn't have been better for Perkin. Remember how I cleverly mentioned the Empress Eugénie de Montijo and her purple fetish which was unsated due to the end of The Golden Age of Guano? In 1857, Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to her daughter's royal wedding. Empress Eugénie expressed her delight that mauve matched the color of her eyes. The craze was so crazy that Punch magazine satirized the outbreak of "mauve measles". 

There is a lot more to Perkin's story, but it's time to move on to explaining how magenta got its name and how this relates to Italy. But first, we will talk about fuchsia.

"Stop teasing me and answer the question!"
"It's not about the destination. It's about the journey."


Perkin's success with investigating coal tar sparked a fierce competition between colorists (chemists in the science of dyeing) in England, France, and Germany. They reasoned that there must be other brilliant colors hiding in the murky depths of coal tar. This hunch bore fruit of many colors. The general importance of coal tar in the production of dyes can seen by thumbing through Hurst's 126 page volume, A Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colors. That's right. A volume of 126 pages listing dyes made from color tar. A copy of this can be found on the coffee table of any reputable color scientist.

François-Emmanuel Verguin was one of the French competitors, who created aniline red in 1858. His choice for a color name was the euphonious fuchsine, after the fuchsia flower. In England, Edward Chamber Nicholson created the same aniline red in 1860 by a different process and named it rosein or roseine, presumably a rose by any other name.

Aniline red also goes by the name rubin or rubine, but I have not been able to track down the source, other than being derived from the Latin rubeus, meaning red. You got it. Someone called the dye red because it was purple.

Before I answer the original question, about how the color magenta got its name, I would be remiss to talk about fuchsia without pointing out that it is one of the most misspelled of all color names. Nathan Moroney ran an online color naming experiment for years. He had a website that would display some combination of red, green, and blue, and then ask the person to type in a name for the color. The pie chart below shows that there are three misspellings of fuchsia that are more common than the correct spelling: fuschia, fuscia, and fushia. Only 10% of three respondents spelled the word correctly.

But I digress. Let's return to the story, which is already in progress.

The Battle of Magenta

The Battle of Magenta, fought near Magenta, Italy, occurred on June 4th of 1859. This was a decisive battle in the Second Italian War of Independence. The French-Sardinian alliance, led by Napoleon III, won out over the Austrian forces. Yes. This is the same Napoleon II who was mentioned earlier for having a fashionista wife. An interesting coincidence, but unrelated to the question at hand.

The Battle of Magenta, by Gerolamo Induno

I will quote from three sources as to how this battle relates to the newly created dye, aniline red.

Philip Ball offered this explanation:

But the color became more popularly known as magenta, named in honor of the Italian town where the French army fought and defeated the Austrians in June 1859.

Ok... sounds good. But how did the dye get associated with the battle? Kate Smith's rendition:

The Battle of Magenta, fought on the outskirts of the town during the Second Italian War of Independence. Some historians say the Battle of Magenta was a turning point in the war. ... The color reminded someone – most likely the person who named it – of the uniforms worn by the Zouave troops of the French army.

Maybe this is the connection? But it begs the question about what dye was used for these uniforms, since the dye was brand new. And another thing that bothers me: I understand that the image above of the 160 year old painting painting as rendered on my computer display is not likely to be color accurate, but the color of the uniforms seems to be closer to red than magenta.

Victoria Finlay had a more practical take on the matter:

It's first name "fuschine" (from the reddish-purple flower fuschia) was too easy to mispronounce, and it got better sales when renamed after a battle that year in the town of Magenta in northern Italy.

Kassia St Clair has offered an even more business-savvy explanation. I have found no other evidence of her assertion that one of the first sales was to an army, but the explanation is compelling.

The first customers [of the dye], intriguingly, were several European armies, who used it to dye their uniforms. The names, though -- 'fuchsia' in France and 'roseine' in Britain -- would not do for so dashing and assertive a hue. Instead, it became known as 'magenta', in honour of the small Italian town where, on 4 June 1859, the Franco-Piedmontese army won a decisive victory against the Austrians.

So, the connection between the war and the dye is a matter of heated dispute. But one thing is clear. The name magenta was good product branding.


Hurst's Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colours lists one more name for the dye: solferino, but neglects to give a source for the name. I found this a bit confusing. The word reminds me of sulphur, which is yellow. Of course, it also reminds me of the purple sulphur bacteria. It would probably not be a good marketing move to name a sexy new dye after a type of bacteria. I can understand why this name didn't stick.

So, naturally, I started googling. I found out that Solferino is the name of another city in Italy. Oh? Interesting. I dug a bit further. It seems that there was a battle fought in Solferino, 20 days after the Battle of Magenta. Oh??? Isn't that interesting?!?!?!

Simon Garfield offers some explanation. The first time I read his account, I missed the fact that it is talking about two different names for the same color.

In Britain, it [aniline red] became known as solferino and then magenta, taking the names from the Franco-Piedmontese war against Austria and Garibaldi's victory in North Italy, where the dye matched the color of the soldier's tunics. 

Here is a different explanation from an online dictionary

After Solferino, a village in northern Italy, where the Battle of Solferino was fought on June 24, 1859, resulting in forty thousand casualties in a single day. The color was named so because the dye of this color was discovered shortly after the battle, and supposedly the color represented how the battlefield appeared after the bloodshed.

One one trivial correction - the dye was discovered shortly before the battle, not after. Another rather bigger error - blood is red, not fuchsia. Blood dries quickly to a dark brown. I don't find this a credible explanation.

My own best guess is that there was a large order of aniline dyes for military uniforms that occurred slightly after the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. Patriotism and the positive image of a winner became useful branding for the new dyes. Both town names were used, but magenta won out in the end, possibly because of the connotation of solferino with sulphur.

And that, my friends, is how the color magenta got its name.


Ball, Philip, Bright Earth, Art and the Invention of Color, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, The Color Revolution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012, pps. 21 - 44

Duffield, Alexander James, The Prospects of Peru: The End of the Guano Age and a Description Thereof, Newman and Company, 1881

Finlay, Victoria, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014

Garfield, Simon, Mauve, How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, Faber and Faber Limited, 2000

Hurst, George H., A Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colours, Heywood and Company, 1892

Lunge, Coal-Tar and Ammonia, Gurney and Jackson, 1882

Meldola, Raphael, Coal and what we get from it: A romance of applied science, 1913

Moroney, Nathan, The many misspellings of fuchsia, from Colour Coded, Society of Dyers and Colourists, 2010

Smith, Kate, Italy | The Colorful City of Magenta,

Smithsonian Libraries, Making Color

St Clair, Kassia, The Secret Lives of Colour, John Murray Publishers, 2016, pps. 162 - 164, 167 - 171

Monday, April 1, 2019

A new color has been patented!

Milwaukee, WI. -- Rufus Chromaphile, spokesperson for John the Math Guy, LLC announced today the issuance of US Patent 10,244,600, assigned to John the Math Guy, LLC for a new color. "This patent represents a great leap forward for fashion, for design,  for art, and most important, for color science. John TheMathGuy has truly demonstrated thinking outside the rainbow on this one!"

When asked to comment, TheMathGuy explained the brilliant Aha! that led to this invention. 

"I was pondering about how it's not possible to stimulate only the M cones in the human eye. If you go to the edge of visible light at the infrared end, you can effectively stimulate only the L cones, and you will see red. If you go to the ultraviolet edge, you can stimulate only the S cones and see a lovely violet. Unfortunately, all visible light which stimulates the M cone (the one in the middle) will also stimulate the L or the S cones. What if we could see a color which only stimulated the M cones?"

TheMathGuy reasoned that he had to use light similar to ultraviolet and infrared to get this effect, but obviously it couldn't be either of them. The Aha! moment came when he started thinking about the compliments of these two colors, ultrared and infraviolet. He rushed to his lab to dig out a darkon generator (which generates anti-photons) and a monochromator (which isolates a single wavelength of light). After a quick trip to American Science and Surplus, he developed a way to combine ultrared and infraviolet.

The resulting color was so mind-blowing that it sent him to the emergency room, but not before he emailed a quick description to his patent attorney. 

The name of this new color? Ubergreen. 

Simulated Ubergreen

Monday, March 25, 2019

I'm forever blowing bubbles

Bubbles. What's not to love? There just have to be some patents on making the fun little things.

The bubble mitt

A patent came to my attention today -- one where I can't help but say, "Gee whiz, I wish I'd thought of that!" The title of the patent: "Wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles". I'll wait for everyone to return from an Amazon search before continuing.

The image below shows the miraculous and ingenious invention. On the right, we see the result when "two thin films of plastic are welded together to form an article that, in one embodiment, is sealed around most sides but open at a proximal end to form a pocket to allow entry of a body part such as a hand." Note that the inventors cleverly left open the possibility that the body part could be something other than a hand. I am positively delirious considering the body parts that I might generate bubbles with!

In a patent, it is generally a good idea to give a broad description ("a body part") and follow that up with one or more specific embodiments to cover what you intend to actually build. This way, maybe you might just be able to keep vicious competitors from selling similar items. The inventors also disclose an embodiment where "the article is sock-like and the pocket is shaped to receive a foot."

Selected figures from US Patent 1,105,618

The upper right of the drawing demonstrates the ensoapification process. That word -- ensoapification -- is my own invention. The inventors did not use that word, but they could have. The patent office recognizes the fact that inventions may contain parts or involve processes where a word doesn't yet exist. So, they are pretty much cool with inventors who make up their own words, provided that the new words are defined. Making up words for patents is one of my favorite activities.

The diagram in the lower right shows how the wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles may be used. A simple whoosh of the hand (or foot, in an alternative embodiment) creates a plethora of mirthful frothy effervescence.

A patent must be useful

One of the requirements for a patent is that it must be useful. Generally speaking, it must solve a problem with the prior art. (Prior art has nothing to do with paintings made by Richard Pryor, by the way. Prior art is fancy legal talk for "stuff that has previously been described that relates to the invention".)

So, patents usually include some verbiage about how pitiful the previous inventions were. This patent is no exception. The inventors articulate not one, not two, but three woeful limitations to other bubble making devices.

1. "[O]ne typically gets the soapy liquid on oneself and ends up a sticky mess, especially on one's hands." Egads! How do you clean a soapy mess off your hands?!?!? You can't hardly use soap!!

2. "Also, most bubble wands have a single or very few holes in the distal (blowing) end, resulting in few bubbles being produced at a time." I readily acknowledge that my distal end has only a single hole for producing bubbles.

3. "[F]or small children or the otherwise inexperienced bubble blower, often it is difficult to find the right rate of blowing to achieve good bubbles: blow too softly and nothing happens; blow too hard and the soapy film collapses and nothing happens. It can be very frustrating." I can't even count the number of parties that I have been to that were ruined by inexperienced bubble blowers!

I'm sure all would agree that society is well served by this new invention.

But wait!

Some of you may have read my blog post about a patent issued to Amazon. Those of you who read this work of art will recall that the internet was absolutely furious that Amazon had been awarded a patent for something as obvious as a white background for a photograph. You will also recall that the actual patent was not nearly as broad as that. I explained in the blog post that you have to read the claims to find out what the inventor (or assignee of the patent) actually owns the rights to.

If you are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of a loophole, I suggest you take a look at the claims.

Claim 1 of the patent includes the phrase "said article being a glove or mitten and said pocket being shaped to receive a hand". Bear in mind that to infringe on a patent, you must transgress all of the recitations in at least one claim. If you omit even one part, you are not infringing.

Further, I should explain something about claims 2 through 14 of this patent. They are all dependent claims. Each of these claims includes by reference all the parts of the corresponding independent claim, as well as further limitations. For example, claim 1 requires a pocket which is shaped to receive a hand. Dependent claim 3 further requires that "said pocket comprises at least two finger portions".

Claim 1 is the only independent claim in US Patent 1,105,618. Claim 1 includes the requirement that the wearable article and packaging for generating bubbles must be a "glove or mitten ... shaped to receive a hand". Can you see where I'm going with this?!?!

I'm pretty excited about this loophole I found. Even though the inventors specifically mentioned using a sock on the foot instead of a glove on the hand, they didn't claim it! I am free to sell a wearable sock and packaging for generating bubbles! I don't know about you, but I am picturing a parade with a row of clowns walking on their hands, generating bubbles as they wave their feet at the adulant crowds.

Caveat: The freedom to sell swim fin bubble makers is based just on this patent. Before firing up the manufacturing facility, I strongly suggest doing a full patent search.

Why did they omit the sock?

Why did the inventors (or the lawyers for the inventors) not claim a bubble maker that could be put on your tushie so that it is activated when you shake your tail feathers?

The lawyers did their job. I had a look at the initial filing of the patent, which can be found in the file wrapper and is available online. Claim 1 in the original did not include any limitations about hands and gloves or mittens. It talks about a pocket being shaped to receive a body part.

The patent examiner, who serves as a referee to block patents that aren't quite up to snuff, also did his job. I haven't read the whole file wrapper, but I would guess that the examiner looked at the prior art, and came to the conclusion that the original claim was too broad, and that the inventors' lawyers responded by adding limitations until the patent examiner yielded.

I am actually familiar with one piece of prior art that was cited by the examiner. The picture below is from a design patent filed by Steve Jernander and Ardith Clubb.

From US design patent D292,641, Cap for bubble blowing

So you see that the idea of inserting a body part into a bubble generation device is not novel. That in itself is probably not enough to keep the bubble mitt from being patented. The original claim required "at least two films of liquid resistant material", which are "sealed on at least one common edge", and which are configured for "substantially preventing "the body part" from getting wet. Ideally, the examiner must find prior art that describes all the recitations in a given claim, and there are a lot of other parts to the bubble mitt claim. I am sure the examiner did this, but I am just too lazy to read through the whole file wrapper.

You may be wondering how it is that I would know about this bubble cap patent. I'm sure you noticed that the patent issued on my birthday, but the reason I knew of the patent is that Steve Jernander was a cousin of mine.

Disclaimer: Despite my apparent claims about actually knowing something about patents, I am not a patent attorney or agent. Or anything having to do with patents, to be honest. Nothing in this blog post should be construed as being legal advice. If you are silly enough to take something from this blog post as actual advice, then my liability is limited to the amount that you paid me to read the blog post.

Monday, February 11, 2019

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Today is, of course, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I should clarify, As I write this post, it is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As you read this post, it may no longer be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is sad, because the International Day of Women and Girls in Science should go on forever, to remind us that Science (with a capital S) is not just about guys, but it's about guys and gals. I personally would like for Science to not be just a men's club.

If you are a blog post aficionado, and you are spending your International Day of Women and Girls in Science reading blog posts about the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I'm gonna guess that you are getting tired of reading about Marie Curie. I mean every blogger and his/her left-handed third cousin twice removed from Akron is writing today about Marie Curie. I certainly don't want to belittle her contributions to Science. I mean, there's that whole Nobel Prize thing. I guess that's kind of a big deal.

But I do want to highlight someone else, someone who has not gotten the recognition that she deserves.

My first thought was Ada Lovelace, who was the very first computer programmer. She programmed a computer developed by Charles Babbage, the Analytical Engine. She programmed the computer before it even existed. How cool is that? I'm not sure how she debugged her code.

A model of Babbage's Analytical Engine which has been on backorder since 1837 

Naaaahhhh... she's been overdone. They even named a programming language after her. Not "Lovelace". That has to do with a film that no one will admit to having watched. The language was Ada.

Then there's the early programmers of the ENIAC -- a computer which actually existed. Likely becasue of the war, these Rosie the Riveters shown below were the first to program the ENIAC. The programming on this beast wasn't done by typing in stuff like "If x = b, then ...". It wasn't even done by flipping switches for 0s and 1s. It was done with short cables that connected various arithmetic units together.

Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were the original programmers of the ENIAC

My next thought was Florence Nightingale. She deserves some credit, since she doesn't get the credit that she deserves. I think most people would remember her as a caring nurse at a field hospital during the Crimean War (in Turkey, circa 1856). This is true. She was a nurse to the soldiers. But to call her "just a nurse" significantly underplays her contribution to Science.

As a nurse, she saw many soldiers die, and was understandably concerned. But rather than just being compassionate, or complaining about the constant deaths of the wounded, she did something about it. She took data. She drew some cools info-graphics. I have no idea what the chart below shows, but someone told me that it is a visualization of the mortality data by month.

Early infographic on field hospital mortality

In the end, Nightingale determined that unsanitary conditions were a major deciding factor into whether a wounded soldier survived. I see this as a three-fold win. First, of course, there was the immediate short-term benefit of saving lives. And that's what war is all about, isn't it?

The second benefit is one that is clear even today when someone goes into surgery. The area of the incision on the patient is carefully cleaned. The surgeon washes his or her hands very thoroughly, and is careful not to get the hands dirty after that. Even in every hospital room, we see a hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall.

The third benefit is more nebulous. From the fact that Nightingale is remembered as a nurse, I conclude that this point may have been lost on the general public. The nebulous and under-appreciated learning from this story is that data can drive decision making. She took data, she analyzed data, came to conclusions based on that data, and those conclusions led to significant improvement to the process.

To quote William Deming, an early proponent of statistical process control, "In God we trust. All others bring data."

Then I come to the woman who I decided would be the topic of this blog post, Dorothy Nickerson. She started her work at the Munsell Corporation and went on to work the bulk of her career at the US Department of Agriculture. She was instrumental in the development of measurement of color, process control in the manufacturing of color, and development of international standards for color.

This looks like a good paper!

I wish I had started this post a few days ago, cuz I would have done a bunch of research on her and presented a really cool and compelling story. My apologies. I promise to get to that blog post some time in the future.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Color Name Conundrum

This article was flagrantly stolen from my keynote presentation at ISCC/AIC Munsell Conference, July of 2018, and from the ISCC Newsletter of January, 2019.

It’s a common argument that my wife and I have. We are at a store or movie or coffee place, and I will comment on another woman’s blouse. “Hey, Honey. Look at the woman in the turquoise top. Isn’t she cute? … She smiled at me… And she handed me a card with her number on it.” Madelaine will invariably respond with “That’s not turquoise!” She may say that it’s teal, or aqua, or beryl, but she will never agree on the color name that I chose. I can blather on all I want about how I am a world-famous color scientist who was asked to give a keynote for the Munsell Conference. It won’t matter. What do I know about color?

The lady in the allegedly turquoise top

This time, I decided that I would win the argument. I started with Merriam-Webster’s dictionary since it is an authoritative reference that would show I was using the color name correctly. This dictionary defines turquoise as “a bluish-green color”, and follows up with the full and much more explanatory definition “a light greenish blue”.

I exercised due diligence and spoke directly with the person who wrote the full definition, Kory Stamper, to help resolve the argument with my wife. She politely (and wisely) declined to get involved. But I could tell that she was agreeing with me.

[As an aside, the exciting thing about attending ISCC/AIC Munsell conferences is that eminent chromo-lexicographers like Kory might be in the audience when they are called out in a keynote address.] defines turquoise similarly: “a greenish blue or bluish green color”. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a similar definition but leans more to the greenish side: “a greenish-blue color”. So, it seems we have a consensus between the dictionaries. But more importantly, we have a consensus in which I win the argument!
The image below shows blue, greenish-blue, bluish-green, and green. The blouse is definitely close to bluish-green, so turquoise is indeed an appropriate descriptor of the blouse color. Did I mention that I claim victory?

The happy shades between blue and green

But I decided to check one last dictionary, Webster’s Third New International. The definition in this dictionary is at once beautiful and tedious.

1) a variable color averaging a light greenish blue that is deeper and slightly greener than average turquoise blue, and greener and deeper than average aqua or average robin’s-egg blue (sense 1)

My stalwart research assistant suggests that the definition might be a bit too complicated

You can see that our puppy, Mozart, was puzzled when he read it, so I diagrammed the definition out for him (see next image). He thanked me when he saw the diagram, and went off to bark a friendly greeting to a squirrel that was outside. By the way, Mozart is not named for Hank “the Tank” Mozart. You will recall that Tank played defensive hatchback for the Green Bay Bruins. His claim to fame is that he scored the winning basket over Jack Nicklaus in the 1968 War of the Roses Tournament. Madelaine and I named the dog after the less-well-known Wolfgang “Wolfie” Mozart.

An Applied Math Guy reads the dictionary

In most dictionary definitions, the lexicographer works to define complex words in terms of more basic words. The Webster’s Third definition of turquoise is unique in that it defines the color relative to other colors which are just as non-basic as turquoise. To really make sense of this tortuous definition of turquoise, I realized that I had to generate similar diagrams for aqua and robin’s egg blue and turquoise blue and greenish-blue, and then for each of the other colors that were called out in those definitions. It only took me three days to generate the following table that delineates the territory of the ten tones in the turquoise tautology. It is clear from this that color names are very precisely defined.

A handy reference for color names in the blue-green family

But I still wasn’t happy. The intertwined definitions haunted me. Where Kory is the Steinbeck of chromo-lexicography, whoever wrote the lovely and sadistic color definitions from Webster’s Third was the Faulkner. I simply had to find out who this anonymous author was.

Luckily, it didn’t take long. The list in the front of the dictionary of contributing experts provided me with the answer. It had to be Isaac Godlove.

[As an aside, the exciting thing about attending ISCC/AIC Munsell conferences is that the audience will recognize the names of prominent researchers in color when their names are mentioned in a keynote address. Let me tell you, the cheers were deafening! Everyone recognized that Godlove was the third author of the seminal paper “Neutral Value Scales. I. Munsell Neutral Value Scale” from the Journal of the Optical Society of America in 1933.]

Of course, some of the people cheering also recognized that Godlove was the director of the Munsell Research Laboratory from 1926 to 1930. What an enormous coincidence that he should get mentioned in the keynote at the Munsell Conference! A few chromo-historians in the crowd actually knew that Isaac Godlove was the chair of the ISCC Committee on Measurement and Specification in 1933. (Note again the coincidence that the ISCC was one of the organizers of the Munsell Conference!)

While Godlove was chair, a group of pharmacists approached Godlove about the need for a definitive guide to color names. This eventually led to the National Bureau of Standards runaway best seller “Color – Universal Language and Dictionary of Color Names”, which became a Broadway play of much acclaim. This absolutely delightful standard carved the Munsell Color Space into 267 regions (called Centroid Colors) and gave each region an intuitive designator like “bG 159”, along with a euphonious name like brilliant bluish green.

A hue slice from the NBS standard on color names

As if that wasn’t enough to earn a prominent spot in my bookcase, the authors dug through all the available color naming guides (like Maerz and Paul, Plochere, and Ridgway) to determine the Munsell coordinates for each of the color words that were defined. As a result, the NBS standard further provides two lists: 1) a list that goes from common color name to the appropriate Centroid Colors in Munsell space, and 2) a list that provides all the color names that have been associated with each of the 267 Centroid Colors.

I was ecstatic. I quickly saw that this book provided a solution to the recurring argument that I had with my wife. The solution is astoundingly simple. Whenever I am within earshot of Madelaine, I just have to go through four simple steps before I utter any color names.

Step 1: Measure the color in question. For example, I called up the woman in the turquoise top, explained the situation, and met her at Starbucks with my spectrophotometer so I could measure her shirt. She understood my predicament perfectly, and agreed to share a Starbucks with me. Her shirt measured CIELAB of 86, -47, -4. Her name is Teal, by the way.

Yes, it’s a bit of a bother for me to carry a colorimeter with me at all times, but what color scientist worth his or her salt doesn’t carry one for the occasional color measurement emergency?

Step 2: Convert from CIELAB coordinates to Munsell designation. One could make use of the Munsell Renotation Data. The official version is conveniently available on the RIT website to do the approximate conversion, but several people have written software that does this. Harold Van Aken (of Wallkill Color) provided a piece of software as a freebie in honor of the Munsell Color Conference. (Yet another astounding coincidence.) Paul Centore has graciously provided an open source conversion, and Danny Pasquale sells an inexpensive tool called PatchTool that provides this function among others. The CIELAB coordinates of Teal’s allegedly turquoise shirt were thus converted to 5BG 8.5/9 in Munsell notation.

[As an aside, the exciting thing about attending ISCC/AIC conferences is that two of the three people who wrote software for this conversion (Paul and Danny) were actually in the audience for the keynote.]

Step 3: Convert from Munsell designation to Centroid colors. It goes without saying that it is pretty quick and easy to leaf through the diagrams (like the one below) in the NBS standard to find the Centroid corresponding to any Munsell designation. In this case, the Centroid Color is 159. Yes, it’s a bit of a bother to carry the NBS standard with me, but it’s a small price to pay for me to prove that I am right in an argument with my wife.

Step 4: Look up the color names listed under the Color Centroid. In the case of Centroid 159, the list is rather short. It includes Beryl Green, Bewitch, Blue Green, Bluish Green, Bright Aqua, Bright Aqua Green, Bright Emerald Green, Bright Green, Bright Jade Green, Bright Turquoise, Bright Turquoise Green, Chill, Crest, Du Barry Blue, Festival, Green, Ice Boat, Light Emerald Green, Lilting Green, Naid, Persian Green, Picturesque, Pool Green, Promised Land, Salome Blue, Song of Norway, Sprite, Sulfate Green, Turquoise Green, Venetus, Venice Green, … and of course, Turquoise. I win!

The fact that this particular color has 32 valid names shows that our assignment of color names to physical colors is not nearly as precise as Godlove and Webster’s Third would have us believe. We need a system like Munsell or CIELAB (or NCS or RAL or Pantone) in order to accurately communicate colors. That’s an important thing to realize, but the more important takeaway from the research presented here is that I won the argument!

May you enjoy arguing with your significant other as much as I do.

If you enjoyed this article, you might consider joining the Inter-Society Color Council! Individual membership is only $50 per year, for which you will receive the ISCC newsletter, as well as reduced rates for any ISCC sponsored conferences.

Such as... the joint TAGA/ISCC conference in balmy Minneapolis in March.