Developing Tide®


Throughout the 1930s Procter & Gamble's chemists and chemical engineers at the Ivorydale Technical Center worked to develop a heavy-duty synthetic laundry detergent. The researchers experimented on the surfactant-builder problem, attempting to develop an alkyl sulfate-based detergent that cleaned heavily soiled clothes without leaving them hard and stiff. They tried to build the surfactant with different chemicals; they added soaps to synthetic detergents; they mixed and matched formulae, tried them as flakes, granules, and liquids. But nothing worked satisfactorily. By the end of the decade, the company had all but given up on developing a heavy-duty synthetic detergent and management began shifting research into other projects. As David "Dick" Byerly — the holder of the key Tide® patent — later recalled: "For almost 10 years we experimented with the new surface-active agents, the basic cleaning agents of synthetic detergents. By the middle of 1941, we still had not come up with a satisfactory, heavy-duty, non-soap product."1

Despite repeated frustrations, Byerly refused to shelve the research and his doggedness insured that Procter & Gamble, not Colgate or Lever Brothers, would be the developer of the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent. But his superiors did not see it that way at the time, and management frequently tried to discourage him from working on what became known as Project X. One of the Byerly's superiors, Thomas Halberstadt, later reminisced about Byerly: "I was very fond of Dick but you've got to understand the man to understand what he did… Dick was an obstinate cuss in some ways. Tenacious as all get out!" But Halberstadt recognized the value of Byerly's tenaciousness: "…Dick's the kind of a guy that somehow or other he'll find a way — if you want a job done, give it to a busy man. Dick was that kid of guy. He would get it done." In the case of Product X, tenacious Dick Byerly "persisted."2

Halberstadt became Byerly's boss in 1939 when he assumed responsibility for product development research for soaps. By that time, research into boosting the cleaning power of synthetic detergents had been put on the back burner. But Byerly wanted to keep experimenting, using superphosphates as the builder. He tried a variant called sodium pyrophosphate, which "cleaned your shirt and mine, but lo and behold, it left the shirt feeling like sandpaper." Byerly was doing this research surreptitiously; he had "long since given up putting this [Product X work] in his weekly report because the only comments he ever got were 'What in the hell are you working on that for?'"3

Byerly regarded Halberstadt cautiously at first, not wanting to reveal his secretive work on synthetic detergents. "He came to me one day," Halberstadt recalled, "and said, 'Now that you're here, I want to know, am I going to be allowed to work on what I think I should be work[ing] on?' I didn't know what he was talking about." Byerly took Halberstadt to his laboratory where they spent two days looking through Byerly's records for the previous five years. "I was impressed," Halberstadt later told a company interviewer. Byerly's data showed that building the surfactant with sodium pyrophosphate resulted in good cleaning. The question was, could Byerly find a formula that would not leave the fabric stiff and rough?4

Halberstadt kicked Byerly's request upstairs to his boss, Herb Coith, the associate director of the Chemical Division. Coith knew about Product X, "but he didn't know all that Dick had done because Dick hadn't reported it." Halberstadt apparently was persuasive, because Coith agreed, adding, "just don't get into any big deal about it." Coith did not object to Byerly tinkering in his laboratory on his own time, but he did not want Halberstadt and Byerly to go to Bruce Strain, the manager of process development for detergents, and ask for "samples made in their pilot plant."5

So Byerly received tacit approval to continue Project X quietly. But his efforts were further hampered by the outbreak of World War II, which led to shortages of raw materials, and the need to convert some processes to military supply and to reformulate many products because of rationing. At one point Coith ordered Halberstadt to shut down Project X because a senior manager learned about it and wondered "how you fellows can fiddle around with a product" P&G had no intention of making "when we've got more unanswered problems out here in the factories." But Byerly sulked and eventually Halberstadt relented: "There was a great deal of work done that was never reported. We new we couldn't. That was that."6

Despite the fits and starts and constant strains, Byerly was making progress. By 1941, he had concluded that the best builder was sodium tripolyphosphate. More importantly, Byerly had a counterintuitive breakthrough. All previous research on soaps and detergents had shown that reducing the amount of builder in a formula yielded a less harsh product (and it was the harshness of products with builder that hamstrung the project for so many years). Like his predecessors and colleagues, Byerly at first tried to keep the proportion of surfactant — the actual cleaning agent — as high as possible. But when he inverted the ratio by boosting the level of builder well above the amount of surfactant, he got a surprising result: The detergent cleaned well without leaving clothes stiff and harsh. After a great deal of trial and error, Byerly determined that the correct formula was one part active detergent, alkyl sulfate, to three parts builder, sodium tripolyphosphate. No one could figure out why it worked, but it worked.7

As Byerly was closing in on the correct formula, it became harder to keep Project X under wraps. Halberstadt and Byerly had been warned not to go to the pilot plants and ask for sample products, but research using hand-mixed materials could not be fully tested. At some point, progress depended on actually testing granulated, or blown, samples. Eventually, Halberstadt had to approach Bruce Strain to get some granules for Byerly's project. Strain would from time to time oblige him, but inevitably the circle of those who knew what was going on got bigger and bigger. In any event, by 1945 the research was far enough along for Herb Coith to decide that Project X should be presented to senior management.8


1 Cited in Memorable Years in P&G History, in-house booklet, undated, p. 28. See also, D.R. Byerly, "History of Tide," Typewritten manuscript, June 15, 1950, P&G Archives; Alfred Lief, "It Floats": The Story of Procter & Gamble (NY: Rinehart & Company, 1958), p. 241.

2 G. Thomas Halberstadt, Interview, April 7, 1984, P&G Archives.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), p. 73.

8 Halberstadt Interview; Dyer, et al., Rising Tide, p. 73


 

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