The development of Tide® — “the washing miracle” synthetic detergent — by Procter & Gamble will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a special ceremony in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 25. The American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, sponsors the Landmarks program.
Tide®, the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent, debuted in 1946, the culmination of a search to replace traditional soaps, which did not clean well in hard water and deposited a residue of scum, or curds.
Catherine T. Hunt, Ph.D., president-elect of the ACS, will present a commemorative bronze plaque at the ceremony to G. Gilbert Cloyd, Chief Technology Officer of Procter & Gamble (P&G). The ACS established the chemical landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal events in the history of chemistry and to increase public awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society.
P&G’s initial synthetic detergent was Dreft®, introduced in 1933. Dreft, composed of an alkyl sulfate, represented a breakthrough because it cleaned clothes in hard water — a particular benefit for residents from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains — without leaving curds. But it did not clean heavily soiled clothes well.
P&G chemists knew that the cleaning ability of synthetic detergents could be boosted by adding “builders,” compounds that penetrate clothes more deeply to remove stains. But the builders left clothes harsh and stiff because the chemicals, usually sodium phosphates, reacted with the water’s hardness to form insoluble deposits that could not be rinsed away.
By the end of the 1930s, P&G had all but given up on attempts to develop a heavy-duty synthetic detergent. But one researcher, David “Dick” Byerly, refused to shelve what became known in the company as Project X. He tried sodium pyrophosphate as the builder. It cleaned well, but the washed clothes felt like sandpaper.
By 1941, Byerly concluded that sodium tripolyphosphate was the best builder. At the same time, he had a counterintuitive breakthrough. Previously, researchers had assumed that the less builder used, the better, since it was the builder that left clothes stiff. But Byerly discovered that if he boosted the level of the builder well above that of the cleaning agent, he got a surprising result: The detergent cleaned well and left clothes soft.
Once the correct formula was found, P&G rushed the new product, Tide®, to the market. It was an instant success, quickly selling out it in markets all over the country. By the early 1950s, Tide® captured more than 30 percent of the laundry market and subsequently became the number-one selling detergent.