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The oral histories presented here document the research and development processes that transformed Kevlar from a novel polymer in the laboratory to a life-changing product in the marketplace. Through many surprising twists and turns, the people profiled here managed to make Kevlar serve the complicated and occasionally contradictory interests of the DuPont company, scientific inquiry, the marketplace, and the general public. Their stories are a rich study in the business and technology of innovation.
Interviews were conducted by John Kenly Smith, PhD, in 2014 and 2015. Special thanks to the 1916 Foundation, the friends and family of Mary Laird Silvia, and individual donors for support of this project.
Irénée du Pont, Jr., describes his early life and later career with the DuPont Company. After World War II, he joined the DuPont Company where for the next two decades he held a variety of jobs. He describes his time on the DuPont executive committee, which he joined in 1967, during which the company had to deal with increasing competition, social unrest in Wilmington, equal opportunity legislation, and environmental regulation. Among other anecdotes, du Pont describes how his father, along with his brothers Lammot and Pierre, set off large fireworks displays at Fourth of July celebrations in the 1920s. He also remarks that he believes Pierre continued to play an important role in the affairs of the company until his death in 1954.
Bob Wolffe details his contribution to Kevlar, which primarily involved working with the aircraft industry to develop markets for Kevlar fibers in weight-saving composite materials. Wolffe consulted with aircraft engineers to learn their requirements and made composite materials to meet the industry's specifications. The first applications were for interior, non-structural uses where failure would not jeopardize the safe operation of the aircraft. Over time, DuPont developed significant domestic and international markets for Kelvar composites in aircraft. Wolffe notes, though, that the most important application was in ballistics.
Wolffe recounts DuPont's efforts during the 1980s to produce its own fabricated composite parts in an effort to move away from being primarily a supplier of Kevlar fabric. Wolffe attributes the failure of this venture to the company underestimating the importance of design and testing of aircraft parts.