Interview with Herbert Blades, 2014 August 19

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  • Early life and education
    Partial Transcript: "I was born on a small farm in Ontario." "I was very naive, I had no idea how to look for a job, it sounded alright to me so I moved to DuPont." "At that time DuPont was hiring anybody... at that time anybody who had a rag of a degree could get a job at DuPont."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about his early life and education. He says that he grew up in a small town in Canada and went to university on the suggestion of a teacher. He earned his doctorate and was contacted by DuPont recruiters while on a post doctoral fellowship at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He said that he would work for them after his fellowship expired. They agreed. He then talks about his graduate work in gas kinetics and the work he did at his post doctoral fellowships. He talks about one of his peers from Canada, Bill Boyle who invented the charge-couple device.
    Keywords: Bill Boyle; CCD; charge-couple device; DuPont; gas kinetics; Kinston, Ontario; McGill University; National Research Council; Ontario, Canada; Ottawa, Ontario; Royal Military College; Toronto, Ontario; University of Western Ontario
  • Starting to work at DuPont and the invention of Tyvek
    Partial Transcript: "Well, I think I was hired and then the departments we're given a chance to offer you a position and pioneering research was the one that offered me one."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about his early days working for DuPont. He talks about his memories of William Hale Charch, a leading research scientist working for DuPont at the time. He describes DuPont as overall being a good working atmosphere. He talks about his early days at DuPont working on solvents for acrylics before moving on to a project that was a precursor of Tyvek. Blades tells a story about the early days of Tyvek and his involvement in inventing Tyvek and says that the husband and wife team that put together one of the earliest forms of Tyvek got no credit on the patent which was shared by Blades and James White. He says that it was the public relations department and not the legal department who decided what names to put on the patent. Blades describes some aspects of the financial life of Tyvek.
    Keywords: 1954; cellophane; DuPont; James White; Louise Jones; management; patents; physical chemistry; Pioneering Research; Tyvek; William Hale Charch
  • The financial costs of creating Tyvek
    Partial Transcript: "Kevlar had some hiccups in it." "At that point there would be no question it would be valuable... at that point it was just about the time that Tyvek would become profitable." "In the Tyvek development, they were making stuff they couldn't sell and so they were putting it in the local dump and when the price turned around and when they started selling more than they could produce they dug it out of the dump to sell it and the challenge was to get rid of the odor."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about the costs of developing new materials and the delayed profits of Tyvek. He tells a story about DuPont throwing away what they could not sell and then digging it out of the dump as they began to sell more and more Tyvek.
    Keywords: accounting; DuPont; management; sales; Tyvek
  • Becoming involved in the Kevlar project
    Partial Transcript: "I was a little bit at loose ends and I think in talking it over in my manager he said why not get involved... with 14B, it wasn't called Kevlar then." "Well, there's two aspects to the Kevlar story one is the chemistry and the other is the spinning operation..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about his early involvement in the Kevlar project. He describes the different labs and departments involved in the invention of Kevlar. He says that they nearly missed out on some aspects of developing Kevlar because departments in the lab were rigidly divided from each other. He discusses the chemistry and manufacture of different kinds of fibers.
    Keywords: 14-B; 14B; chemistry; dry spinning; Kevlar; management; Stephanie Kwolek; wet spinning
  • DuPont's commitment to developing Kevlar
    Partial Transcript: "What I've seen historically is someone gets an idea is that somebody gets an idea on a laboratory scale and then you go up the next stage and they call it a semiworks..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about how committed DuPont was to the development of Kevlar. He says that Kevlar was costly and had status as a semi-works, and one step above it being the idea of a single laboratory. He then describes Kevlar's development cycle. He describes different types of solvents used in Kevlar's spinning process.
    Keywords: 14B; development; DuPont; H2SO4; Kevlar; polymers; PPDT; research; semi-works; semiworks; sulfuric acid
  • Explanation of spinning Kevlar fibers
    Partial Transcript: "I'd be delighted to explain it to you, but you're going to have to understand what spinning is." "I asked the question...why is it there's these speed limitation on spinning?"
    Synopsis: Blades explains why the Kevlar spinning process was so slow due to the crystalline properties of Kevlar. He explains why spinning a solution in sulfuric acid is advantageous. Blades describes the chemical reactions that take place during the spinning process. He then explains how he concluded that the spinning process could go faster, but that the people in the lab weren't interested because they did not want to change the spinning equipment.
    Keywords: Kevlar; limitations; solvents; spinning; sulfuric acid
  • Spinning fibers in sulfuric acid solutions and making a gadget to make solutions and custom spinning solutions
    Partial Transcript: "It turned out that making a solution of the polymer in sulfuric acid was very difficult..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about the difficulties of spinning solutions in sulfuric acids. He describes a custom made gadget that he used to make reliable solutions. He talks about how he devised a custom method to spin heated solutions with an air gap. He describes the results of his methods. He describes how his method improved the fibers. He says that for the time being DuPont remained uninterested in the fiber that would become Kevlar.
    Keywords: H2SO4; inventions; solutions; spinning; sulfuric acid
  • Blade's process comes to prominence
    Partial Transcript: "...the polymer solution becomes less and less soluble as you add water..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about how his manufacturing process eventually won out. He explains the significance of his process compared to others and compares it to the process of making Rayon. He also compares the uniformity of the fibers formed in his custom process to the uniformity of sugar crystals.
    Keywords: coagulation; fibers; Rayon; reactions far from equilibrium; spinning; sulfuric acid
  • Kevlar becomes a larger project
    Partial Transcript: "Our next stage from the semiworks was to go bigger..." "They put in charge of that a guy whose knowledgeable about Rayon spinning..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about the growth of the Kevlar project. He says that over the course of the first year the DuPont used a manufacturing process that was very slow because it did not efficiently use water to quench the fibers as they came out of the machine. Blades talks about the occasional over reliance on models in science and manufacturing instead of just trying something new, especially if it is cheap and easy.
    Keywords: DuPont; management; manufacture; Rayon; semiworks; Teflon; water
  • Life after Kevlar
    Partial Transcript: "It was sort of implicit that the Kevlar story is over, you gotta think about something else, but I keep coming back to it..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about life after developing Kevlar. He says that while he did not appreciate it at the time, he earned a position in the company where he could do whatever he wanted, but did not. He says that he should have tried to make Kevlar stronger, but did not. He says that he tried to make the manufacture process faster so that Kevlar could be cheaper. He notes that the current Kevlar team has managed to slightly increase the tensile strength of Kevlar.
    Keywords: innovation; Kevlar; manufacture; memory
  • The structure of Kevlar under heat
    Partial Transcript: "If you heat a Kevlar fiber... it gets shorter..."
    Synopsis: Blades talks about how the structure of Kevlar changes when applied to heat. He also talks about Kevlar's tendency to form a lattice structure. He says that he should have been experimenting with why Kevlar behaves this way and how to take advantage of that and improve it.
    Keywords: carbon fiber; heat; Kevlar
  • Thoughts on management that allows for research and development
    Partial Transcript: "I think an interesting question is too what kind of management system do you have where the people who have to take responsibility for the cost and so on are willing to take a chance..."
    Synopsis: Blades wonders why management at DuPont was willing to keep developing projects that seemed doomed at first like Kevlar and Tyvek. He talks about some of the other development projects that failed at DuPont. He says that he thinks a lack of an atmosphere that fostered collegial conversation is responsible for some of the shortcomings at DuPont.
    Keywords: Crawford T. Greenwalt; Delrin; DuPont; innovation; Kevlar; Lycra; management; Neoprene: Teflon; Nomex; Nylon
  • Working in a research centered atmosphere
    Partial Transcript: "I did work in an atmosphere which was where I was allowed to indulge in a more pure kind of research, but I was the exception..." "The research associates, I think the policy was... so that there would always be one or two people there who weren't following the standard industrial research... I think most of my supervisors thought of me that way.
    Synopsis: Blades talks about working at DuPont. He says that his managers gave him almost total freedom in doing his own research, which he liked. He says that many of his peers actually ignored him. He returns to the lack of a collegial atmosphere in the research lab and says that he thinks the lab could have been better with that type of environment.
    Keywords: DuPont; management; research