Wilmington, Delaware — March 2016 — How a novel polymer in the laboratory became a socially transformative product in the marketplace is the topic of a new oral history prepared by Hagley Museum and Library.
“Kevlar R&D: An Oral History” features 13 hours of reminiscences that form a rich study in the business and technology of innovation, going back to chemist Stephanie L. Kwolek’s 1965 discovery of Kevlar. Through many surprising twists, the six subjects talk about how they helped make Kevlar serve the complicated and occasionally contradictory interests of the DuPont Company, scientific inquiry, the marketplace, and the general public. The order of the interviews follows the development of Kevlar from a laboratory oddity to the production line. The six are chemists Herbert Blades and Wesley Memeger, Jr.; engineers Donald Sturgeon, Bob Wolffe, and Ted Merriman; and executive Irénée du Pont, Jr.
“The history of technology shows that innovation is a team effort, and the stories documented by ‘Kevlar R&D’ reveal the work done by many talented individuals to bring Kevlar out of the laboratory and into our lives,” said Gregory Hargreaves, Hagley Oral History Project manager.
“After Dr. Kwolek’s death, we were fortunate enough to receive her collection of documents, photographs, and artifacts. It made sense to us to cover the spectrum of Kevlar’s development, from the laboratory to finished products,” said Erik Rau, director of Library Services at Hagley. The finding aid to her collection can be found at http://findingaids.hagley.org.
Herbert Blades developed a commercially viable process to spin fibers economically and at high speeds from the polymer to make Kevlar.
Wesley Memeger, Jr., solved a major problem in making Kevlar. In the laboratory, Kevlar was polymerized in a mixture of two solvents, abbreviated HMPA and NMP. By researching the ratio of the solvents, he discovered that contrary to prior opinion a satisfactory polymer could be made using only HMPA. After concerns about toxicology, DuPont later replaced HMPA with NMP and calcium chloride.
Donald Sturgeon used his PhD in engineering mechanics to evaluate the properties of Kevlar fibers for composite structures. He developed weight-saving Kevlar composites for the aircraft industry, bullet-resistant vests, and non-cut fabrics.
Bob Wolffe, who had a PhD in chemical engineering, said in his interview that the most important application for Kevlar was in ballistics. He also worked on products for the aircraft industry, with the first applications for interior, non-structural uses.
Ted Merriman was instrumental in developing a pulped form of Kevlar fiber suitable for automobile brake lining after it was discovered in the late 1970s that the standard material, asbestos fiber, caused lung cancer. Brake pads even with very small amounts of Kevlar had good wear characteristics and were quieter than other types. In the early 1980s, Merriman was named the Kevlar product steward to ensure there were no health or safety problems for DuPont’s customers.
Irénée du Pont, Jr., a mechanical engineer who joined the DuPont Company after World War II, held a variety of jobs before joining the company’s ruling executive committee in 1967. During his tenure on the committee, DuPont had to deal with increasing competition, social unrest in Wilmington, equal opportunity legislation, and environmental regulation. His point of view on innovation was from the boardroom.
“Kevlar R&D: An Oral History” is a product of the Hagley Oral History Project Office and is available at http://vimeopro.com/hagleyoralhistory/kevlar. Interviews and summaries were by John Kenly Smith, PhD, with video production by Mike Oates and 302 Stories, Inc. Support came from the 1916 Foundation, the friends and family of Mary Laird Silvia, and individual donors. Extensive archival materials related to Kevlar can be found at http://www.hagley.org/library.