Duncan Goes to Europe


"In April 1931," Robert Duncan, a process engineer with Procter & Gamble recalled, "I left on a trip… to visit some plants on the continent on a scouting expedition to see if I could learn anything concerning processes or products of interest to P&G."1 One visit took Duncan to the I.G. Farben Research Laboratories in Germany. Duncan saw and heard nothing of interest on his official tour, but "when I left it was approaching their quitting time and one of their men asked to ride with me as far as his home. In the conversation enroute [sic] I asked whether there were any other developments which might be of interest to P&G and which they had not shown me. After thinking a moment, he said, 'Yes, there is one development which I believe you will find interesting from an academic point of view, but I am sure it will be of no commercial interest to P&G.'"2

Duncan's confidante related that during the First World War — when Germans were unable to obtain soap — German chemists had visited a little textile plant that used bile from slaughtered cattle as a wetting agent in its dyeing process. The practice of using bile as a substitute for soap, which is also a wetting agent, "was a bit of old folklore." I.G. Farben isolated the active ingredient, which it then synthesized and marketed as Igepon to the textile trade. "It was described," Duncan related, "as a good wetting agent, a fair detergent, not affected by hard water, and resistant to acid. But it was also described as hard to make, expensive, and with physical characteristics that would make it unsuitable for detergent use in the home. Just then we came to his village and he left."3

This "interesting bit of information" grabbed Duncan's attention since P&G made soaps, but, he wrote, "it did not seem tactful to go back to I.G. and ask them about something they had not officially told me but about which I had learned through the back door." Instead, Duncan contacted a colleague at Deutsche Hydrierwerke which was about to market a competitive product. Duncan visited the factory which was producing saturated fatty alcohols by catalytic hydrogenation. The company hoped to sell the finished alkyl sulfate to the textile trade. But, Duncan added in his account, "they had no notion as to what value, if any, it had as detergent for home use but agreed we could have some of the product to study." Duncan purchased 100 kilograms or the material, which he express shipped to Cincinnati.4

Duncan was interested in the German research because traditional soaps did not work well in hard water, where they deposited a residue of scum, or curds. Duncan understood that the properties that made the surface-active agent ("surfactant") an effective wetting agent theoretically should make it an effective detergent as well. With the German material in hand, P&G researchers went to work and discovered that it was possible to create a two-part molecule — resembling a string — which would allow water to break up oils and grease and float away dirt. One end of this molecule bonds with oils and grease, the other with water: "This two-part characteristic allows the molecule [a surfactant]… to actually pull oils and grease into a water solution. Once that happens, water soluble soils can be washed away."5

During the summer and early fall of 1931, the research department tried to process the alkyl sulfates into bars, flakes, granules, liquids to determine the best form for potential marketing, and researchers conducted tests on its stability and the quality of the suds the alkyl sulfates produced. Samples were provided for home tests in an informal consumer survey. Duncan says "most of the people in the Chemical Division had some part in this testing…"6 The test results appeared favorable, so in October P&G sent a representative to Germany to work out a licensing agreements with Deutsche Hydrierwerke and another German company which was making unsaturated alkyl sulfates from sperm whale oil. Other complications cropped up involving DuPont which had applied for a patent to make fatty alcohols and National Aniline which was interested in marketing alkyl sulfates to U.S textile companies. By 1932, license agreements were signed with all the contending parties, and "P&G was then free to develop and market alkyl sulfates as synthetic detergents in the household and laundry fields."7

Procter & Gamble decided to market a granulated laundry detergent and a liquid shampoo. The company launched Dreft,® the first synthetic detergent, in 1933 and Drene, the first synthetic hair shampoo, the following year. Both products found a niche in the market, but sales were relatively small. Dreft in particular represented a breakthrough in detergents since it cleaned clothes in hard water without leaving curds, a significant benefit for those who lived where the water is hard, which is roughly the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains. But the detergent did not clean heavily soiled clothes. P&G chemical engineers knew that cleaning ability could be improved by "building" the surfactant, that is, by adding chemical compounds — sodium phosphates — to increase the surfactant's ability to get at deeply embedded dirt. But the "builders" left clothes harsh and stiff because the chemicals reacted with the water's hardness to form insoluble, granular deposits that would not rinse away. Because of its limitations, Dreft without builders remained a useful product, but one with a narrow market appeal — for delicate fabrics and baby clothes.8

When William Cooper Procter, president of the company from 1907-1930 and chairman from 1930-1934, approved "the plan to work on synthetic detergents he remarked 'This may ruin the soap business. But if anybody is going to ruin the soap business it had be better be Procter & Gamble."9 Dreft's appeal was too limited for it to "ruin the soap business." But P&G sensed the future lay with synthetic detergents and for the next decade and a half its researchers explored various ways to build the cleaning power of synthetic detergents. The result would be Tide® — which did ruin the soap business.


1 Robert A. Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents: A Short History," Typewritten manuscript, September 5, 1958, P&G Archives, p. 1.

2 Ibid, p. 2.

3 Ibid., p. 3. The terms soap and detergent are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. The broadest definition of a detergent is a compound or combination of compounds used for cleaning. Therefore, all soaps are detergents but not all detergents are soaps. Soaps are generally made from the reaction of animal or vegetable fat (oil or glyceride) with a base, such as found in wood ashes, to yield a salt of a long chain fatty acid. The long organic chain is hydrophobic, i.e., it hates water, but does dissolve grease, oil and dirt, while the salt end of the molecule is hydrophilic, i.e., it likes water. The combination in a single molecule gives soap its cleaning power. A detergent, as used in this brochure, is a compound that has been specifically designed and synthesized to have hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts, but it is not derived from animal or vegetable fats, and has cleaning properties equal to or better than any soap. A wetting agent is a compound that increases the ability and speed with which a liquid displaces air from a solid surface thus improving the process of wetting that surface. A surfactant is a wetting agent.

4 Ibid.

5 Memorable Years in P&G History, in-house booklet, undated, p. 28.

6 Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents," p. 4.

7 Ibid, pp. 4-5.

8 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. 70. Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents," p. 6.

9 Ibid., p. 5.


 

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