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How was the color blue invented?

How was the color blue invented?

The color blue has a fascinating history that gives insight into the origins and evolution of color names and dyes. While blue pigments have been used since prehistoric times, the name “blue” and recognition of it as a distinct color separate from black, green, or purple emerged more recently. Tracing the roots of the word “blue” sheds light on how colors developed in different cultures and languages over time. Understanding how natural plant dyes and synthetic pigments allowed people to consistently produce blue hues charts the ingenuity involved in inventing stable blue dyes and paints. Examining when various cultures named and produced the color blue illuminates broader patterns in color perception, technology, trade, and semantics.

Etymological Origins

The word “blue” has murky linguistic origins. In English, the word emerges in the Middle Ages, but the exact etymology is uncertain. Some link it to the Old French word blo, bleu meaning a dark color. This French root apparently comes from the Frankish term *blao meaning pale, blond, or stained. However, other etymologists propose a Germanic root that connects blue to the word blauw in Dutch and bla in Old Norse and Icelandic. This could derive from the Proto-Germanic word *blaewaz meaning bright or shining.

While the exact linguistic precursors are ambiguous, it seems “blue” as a distinct color term emerges in European languages by the 12th century CE. Before this time, Greek, Latin, and older Germanic languages like Old English did not have a specific name for blue, instead describing the color as versions of dark, livid, pale, or black. The realization of blue as separate from other colors evolved as dyeing techniques allowed people to consistently produce blue coloring.

Early Blue Pigments

Long before blue was recognized as a distinct color, early humans used blue pigments in prehistoric art and decoration. The earliest blue dyes came from minerals like lapis lazuli, azurite, and malachite that provided vibrant blue hues. Lapis lazuli stones imported from Afghanistan were ground up to make ultramarine pigments used in Persia, Egypt, and medieval Europe. Egyptians also used calcium copper silicate particles from crushed glass to invent Egyptian blue, a pigment used from the Bronze Age through Roman times. Chinese also invented a synthetic blue pigment called Han blue in the 8th century BCE by heating a mix of silica, lime, copper, and oxides.

These early pigments provided bright blue tones, but had limitations. Mineral-based blues like ultramarine and azurite were expensive and hard to obtain. Synthetic pigments like Han blue could fade or react negatively with other substances. Furthermore, the dyes came out inconsistently when painted or dyed using more primitive techniques. Thus, while blue artifacts exist from ancient times, producing reliable blue colors proved challenging.

Indigo and Woad

The development of stable organic blue dyes from plants enabled more consistent mass production of blue tones. In multiple ancient civilizations, people derived blue dyes from indigo-bearing plants like indigofera tinctoria and isatis tinctoria, known as woad. Sources indicate indigo dyeing occurred in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley civilizations as early as 2,500 BCE. However, indigo had limits. It requires vats and chemical processes to dissolve the dye and coax it to bind to fabric. The need for large volumes of dye plants also restricted production.

Early Synthetic Blues

The invention of synthetic blue dyes revolutionized the accessibility and prevalence of blue coloration. In 1704, German dye maker Johann Jacob Diesbach accidentally discovered Prussian blue while experimenting with cochineal dyes. Iron sulfate contaminated the dyes, reacting to form the stable, intense blue pigment. By the early 1700s, other dye makers like Woodward and Dippel began producing Prussian blue in England and Holland. Prussian blue became a widely used dye for clothing and the dominant blue ink, as well as inspiring other synthetic blues like cobalt blue.

In 1828, German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge isolated chlorine derivatives in coal tar, a substance which yielded brilliant blue and green dyes. In the 1840s, British chemist William Henry Perkin serendipitously discovered the aniline dye mauve while attempting to synthesize quinine. Perkin’s mauve sparked interest in synthesizing dyes from coal tar, including French chemist Frédéric Swarts’s 1859 invention of the first stable and marketable synthetic blue dye: cobalt blue. Dozens of new patented synthetic blues followed in the late 1800s, feeding the demand for blue clothing.

Naming Blue in Different Cultures

While blue gained recognition as a distinct color late in many Western languages, the realization of blue as a separate color occurred on different timelines globally based on available dye technology. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the first distinction of color made was between “light” and “dark” rather than spectral colors. Words like glaukos in Greek and caeruleus in Latin could refer to a wide range of dark, dull, or greenish blues.

Specific names for blue emerged earlier in languages that derived indigo dyes from native plants. For instance, neela was used for blue in Sanskrit, and language in the Mayan K’iche’ culture included distinct names for green-blues (q’anil) and purple-blues (choj). The development of mass-produced blue pigments in Europe coincided with the emergence of “blue” as a distinct term.

Culture Term for Blue Details
Ancient Egyptian ḥsBḏ Lapiz lazuli, Blue-green tones
Ancient Greek κυανοῦς (kyanous) Dark blue
Sanskrit nīla Indigo blue-black
Mayan q’anil, choj Light and dark blue
Latin caeruleus Dark blue, blue-green
Old English blaw Pale blue or livid
Old Norse blár Dark blue
Modern English Blue Bright medium spectral blue

This demonstrates how blue was delineated from other colors at different points based on dye technology, materials available, and semantics in each language.

Cognitive Perception of Color

Beyond having available dye substances, the identification of blue as a separate color category needed cognitive templates in language to assign it meaning distinct from other hues. Berlin and Kay’s seminal 1969 study on basic color terms argues that cultures develop color words in a predictable sequence, with all languages having independent terms for black and white first, then red, then green or yellow, and finally blue. This seemingly universal pattern, except for rare exceptions, suggests an underlying cognitive basis for how the human brain differentiates color groups when naming them, with blue as the last primary color distinguished in most languages’ evolution.

Wider recognition of blue as a distinct category evolved as dye technology enabled global production of blue cloth and artifacts, increasing blue’s prominence and contrast with existing color terms. Industrialization allowed synthetic blues to proliferate through mass produced textiles and goods, reinforcing blue in the popular consciousness. The global diffusion of blue clothing and merchandise contributed to blue’s meaning as a favorite color for many modern cultures.


In summary, blues existed since prehistory, but the identification of blue as a distinct color meaning bright or vivid blue emerged between the 11th and 18th centuries in Europe in parallel with dye and pigment inventions. Indigo, then synthetic dyes allowed reliable production of vivid blues, while languages like English developed specific words to categorize these hues. The path to inventing blue involved chemical technologies, cognitive structures in language, and growing cultural familiarity with manufactured blue objects. Examining the history provides insight into color technology, visual perception, and linguistics. Blue’s trajectory shows that color is as much a cognitive and cultural construct as an objective phenomenon. The emergence of blue was not a momentary invention, but a long evolutionary process leading up to the rich shades of blue we recognize today.