BORAX (sodium tetraborate) became important in the European Middle Ages as a flux for soldering—that is, for cleaning the surfaces of metal pieces to be joined by being melted together. Native European sources were un-known, and the nature and origin of this mysterious material was long a puzzle to chemists. Borax was ultimately traced to Tibet—almost the only source known until the discovery (1776) and exploitation (1820) of Italian springs of boric acid (hydrogen tetraborate), which could be converted by the addition of soda (sodium carbonate) into borax. Italy became the principal source of borax until the 1860s, when desert areas now in Chile began to supply borax.
The key figure in the discovery of borax in North America was John A. Veatch, who found it in California in 1856, first in springs at the north end of the Sacramento Valley (Tehama County) and then in larger quantities in a cutoff bay of Clear Lake (Lake County). Veatch himself stated that the discovery was accidental, sparked by the presence in the region of an Englishman who had formerly worked for a London borax company. The California Borax Company was organized to exploit this source, and the company struggled for a decade to extract and purify a material encrusted on the bottom of an isolated wilderness lake. In 1857 Veatch's explorations took him to southern California, where he found borax in the waters of mud volcanoes in the Colorado desert. Within the next decade, borax was found in surface encrustations in more convenient locations in Nevada and southern California. In 1871 the Mining and Scientific Press of San Francisco reported borax to be "all the rage," with production in progress at Columbus, Fish, and Teal marshes in Esmeralda County, Nevada. In 1880 production began in Death Valley, California, where the famous twenty-mule-team wagons carried it out of this below-sea-level depression to the railroad junction at Mojave, 160 miles away.
These surface deposits of borax were largely sodium calcium tetraborate (ulexite), known from their appearance as cotton balls. Their conversion to true borax was chemically simple but difficult in practice. American producers mastered the conversion process by the mid-1880s and supplied the domestic and international markets. However, they drove the price down to a level that caused most producers to fail. The principal survivor, Francis "Borax" Smith, employed Stephen Mather to promote borax in 1896, starting with a pamphlet advertising two hundred "recipes" for borax. This successful advertising campaign greatly expanded the demand for borax, which had become relatively inexpensive, especially in washing powders, glass, and ceramic glazes.
Although Smith controlled nearly all American sources of borax, financial troubles with his other investments forced him to merge with the English borax company Redwood and Sons in 1896 to form a company known in the early 2000s as U.S. Borax. Exploitation of shallow deposits terminated once drilling began in the Mojave Desert, at a site marked by the company town, Boron. In the 1970s production there and at Searles Lake, California, exceeded one million tons per year and satisfied the borax demands of the United States, western Europe, Japan, and many other parts of the world.
Coolidge, Dane. Death Valley Prospectors. Morongo Valley, Calif.: Sagebrush Press, 1985.
Spears, John R. Illustrated Sketches of Death Valley and Other Borax Deserts of the Pacific Coast. Morongo Valley, Calif.: Sagebrush Press, 1977.
Travis, Norman J., and E. J. Cocks. The Tincal Trail: A History of Borax. London: Harrap, 1984.
Robert P.Multhauf/h. s.
bo·rax / ˈbôraks/ • n. a white mineral, Na2B4O7(OH)4.8H2O, in some alkaline salt deposits, used in making glass and ceramics, as a metallurgical flux, and as an antiseptic.
So boracic XIX.