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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.
Donald Sturgeon details his work at DuPont evaluating the properties of Kevlar fibers, particularly for their utility in composite structures. He recounts that while the fiber was incredibly strong in tension, it had relatively poor performance in compression. The peculiar features of Kevlar fibers required that Kevlar reinforced products had to be carefully engineered. Initially, DuPont hoped that Kevlar would find a large market as tire cord. When tire manufacturers opted for steel belts in radial tires, DuPont had to find other markets for Kevlar.
Sturgeon further describes his work in developing novel applications for Kevlar. Because Kevlar was difficult to make and process, DuPont had invested an unprecedented $500 million by the mid-1970s. Instead of one large market, DuPont had to develop many smaller applications for Kevlar. Sturgeon worked on developing and promoting weight-saving Kevlar composite materials to the aircraft industry. He was also involved in developing bullet-proof vests and non-cut fabrics. Through these extensive product development and marketing efforts, Kevlar eventually became a profitable product.
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.