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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.
After describing his education and early work at the DuPont Savannah River plant, Merriman describes his first project at the Pioneering Laboratory at DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington in 1969 working on new uses for ceramic aluminum oxide fiber PRD-29. Merriman then details his role in developing a pulped form of Kevlar fiber that made it suitable for use in automobile brake lining in the late 1970s, after it was discovered that the standard material, asbestos fiber, caused a particular form of lung cancer. Merriman developed a process that produced Kevlar fluff using conventional paper-making equipment. Because Kevlar cost about one hundred times as much as asbestos, brake linings had to be redesigned to use very small amounts of it. Working with brake pad manufacturers, Merriman succeeded in producing a commercially viable Kevlar brake pads that had good wear characteristics and were quieter than other types. Brake lining became a significant market for Kevlar. Merriman also describes the extensive testing on Kevlar that DuPont performed at its toxicology facility, the Haskell Laboratory, to ensure that Kevlar did not have adverse health effects.