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Borates in Detergents: The Next Step in Laundry Technology

:: Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Mechanization came early to wash day when, many centuries ago, someone had the bright idea that it would be more efficient (and kinder on the hands) to stir the clothes around the tub with a stick or paddle. Today's high-tech, silicon-chip-controlled, wi-fi-enabled washing machines are really only a continuation of that early idea, using more complex machinery and control systems to swish the clothes around in the suds.

The chemical evolution of laundry detergents has kept pace with the mechanical evolution of the machinery. From early hand-chopped soap to the launch of Persil, which utilized the stain-removing properties of borates and other chemicals, laundry detergents continue to change.

Machines to Make Life Better

Two mechanical developments stand out in the evolution of the domestic washing machine. The first, electricity and the motors it could drive, took away a lot of the drudgery—but at the risk of regular water-slosh-induced short circuits, not to mention the occasional washer-person electrocution. The other, revolutionary in the 90-degree sense, took the traditional wash tub and turned it on its side.

Electricity made its wash-day debut in 1906, when Chicago's Alva J. Fisher filed a patent for an electric-powered machine. The Thor washing machine was manufactured and marketed by the Hurley Corporation in 1910. It had a wooden vessel, with a paddle arrangement driven by an unprotected electric motor mounted below the tub. Electric machines were slow to gain popularity, most likely because until World War I, households without servants rarely had electricity and those with electricity usually had servants—and therefore had no need for mechanized washing machines.

For another 30 years, the basic washing machine was modeled on the traditional tub: Dump dirty clothes in at the top, and they were washed by rotating or reciprocating paddles. But in 1937, the Bendix Aviation Company of Indiana produced a machine that rotated in the horizontal plane—washing went in through a watertight door at the front.

Why were front-loaders so revolutionary?

  • Space-saving: They can be installed under a work surface, or items can be placed on top of them.
  • Unloading: Clean wash can be pulled out straight into a basket rather than requiring the user lift heavy, damp articles up and over the side.
  • Gentler on fabrics: A tumble-squelch action, rather than a violent round-and-round, back-and-forth battering is easier on clothing.
  • More environmentally friendly: They use far less water, and hence less energy is needed to pump, agitate, and heat the water.

Washing machines of all types have increasingly focused on water and energy efficiency, simultaneously favoring the adoption of more sophisticated, efficient detergents. These usually contain perborate, a borate-based oxygen bleach that is less aggressive than hypochlorite bleach and is capable of safely removing stains from both white and colored garments. Borates in the wash water have other benefits too:

  • Water softening
  • Buffering the alkalinity needed by the other wash ingredients
  • Dissolving and leaching stains from fabrics
  • Stabilizing stain-digesting enzymes and some of the newer additions to wash formulations that derive from renewable sources, such as complex sugars

Hypochlorites do not provide any of these additional benefits and are incompatible with most of the enzymes used in modern detergents. Lower water volume means that the concentration of the detergent is also higher, an environment that favors the stain removing of perborate activity over hypochlorite, especially as hypochlorite in greater concentrations is known to damage cotton fabrics over time and also has an unpleasant odor. Many enzymes are stabilized too, rather than destroyed.

The Timeline of Wash Days


Washing happens in a river, lake, pond, or tub and a pair of arms, a wooden paddle, or “dolly” is used to agitate laundry.

2,500 BCE

Sumerian tablet records washing of woolens with soap.


The first patent for a machine to “wash, press out water, and to press linen and wearing apparel” is filed by Mr. Rogerson of Lancashire, UK. Whether the machine was made is not recorded.


In the United States, Joel Houghton and Hamilton E. Smith separately invent hand-operated, cylindrical machines with agitated water and revolving paddles.


London's International Exhibition displays several domestic and American washing machines. 1884 Thomas Bradford of Manchester, England, makes a combined washing and wringing machine. 1890 A ratchet-slat machine is invented and produced in Newton, Iowa.


Thor, the first electric washing machine, is patented by Alva J. Fisher of Chicago; produced and marketed in 1910.


Hamilton Smith develops a “reversible” machine to prevent tangling.


Introduction of Persil, the earliest washing powder to contain a perborate bleaching agent.


An electric machine that would “revolutionize the industry” is invented, made in Newton, Iowa, and marketed by Frederik L. Maytag.

1914 – 1918

Modern detergents are developed in Germany.


Bendix of Indiana begins production of the first front-loading (horizontal axis) machine.

1968 - 1970s

Biological washing powders are developed; application of electronics and microprocessors begins.

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U.S. Borax, part of Rio Tinto, is a global leader in the supply and science of borates—naturally-occurring minerals containing boron and other elements. We are 1,000 people serving 650 customers with more than 1,800 delivery locations globally. We supply around 30% of the world’s need for refined borates from our world-class mine in Boron, California, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.  Learn more about Rio Tinto.

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