Imagine if your best friend wanted to try some bulletproof armour on you. You’re there, sitting on your sofa with more ice cream than is healthy, watching your shows, and next thing you know, your very best friend calls you up. “Hey, I have an experiment and you’re first in line to try it out!” You wander over, right, all excited and shit. And then she pulls out a gun and says, “Hey, I’m going to shoot you! But don’t worry, I’ve invented Kevlar and I’m fairly certain you won’t die!” Would you let her shoot you? Nobody is saying this is what Stephanie Kwolek did, of course, I’m sure she was far more responsible than that. But if I was her, I certainly wouldn’t be quite so responsible. That’s probably why I don’t have any friends. In fact, it’s a long list of reasons why I don’t have any friends…
The Magic of Dirk DuPont and His Scant Regard for the Fuel Shortage
So there you are. You’re working at DuPont, a chemical company named after Dave DuPont, whose parents really let him down with that first name. I’m just saying, if I was having a child and I had that surname, I’d opt for ‘Dirk’.
Imagine all the ladies Dirk DuPont will get…
Stephanie Kwolek worked at DuPont in the Pioneering Research Laboratory, which, if you ask me, is a high bar to set. “And here is our fancy new laboratory, the home of pioneering research!” You better deliver with a name like that.
Stephanie’s team was tasked with creating a strong, lightweight fibre that would replace steel wire in tyres. There was a petrol shortage so, naturally, DuPont set to work to fix the problem by inventing some new tyres. Stephanie was up for the challenge. Imagine if she wasn’t?
A replacement for steel, you say? Nah.
Sounds like me. I rarely find the energy to get up, these days. I just tend to flop out of bed and writhe around on the floor like a kipper…
Landing at the Door of DuPont Because School Is Too Expensive
Stephanie Kwolek was born to Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania in 1923. Stephanie spent hours with her father exploring the natural world. Together, father and daughter studied plants and animals around their home. Stephanie attributed her interest in science to him and an interest in fashion to her mother.
I like to think I get my interest in hot pants from God…
Stephanie never aspired to be a chemist at all. At first, she wanted to get into fashion. Then, poetry. And then, naturally… science. But medical school was too expensive, so, instead, she interviewed for a chemical research position at DuPont.
She found life among the chemicals SO fascinating she never left.
I can relate. I was big into chemicals at school. Mainly because they made everything go all funny and delightful, but that’s what happens when you huff something you shouldn’t.
Little did Stephanie know, but she was about to become the woman who could stop bullets…
The Woman of Steel Faffing Around with Tyres and Impossible Invention
So there was Stephanie. You remember she was faffing around with tyres because of the fuel shortage? She was experimenting, working away to make stronger and stiffer fibres. But then, one day, she made an exceptional discovery.
The solution was… turbid, stir-opalescent and buttermilk in appearance. Conventional polymer solutions are usually clear or translucent… the solution that I prepared… was a liquid crystalline solution, but I did not know it at the time.
I get it, there are a lot of long, complex words in that paragraph, but, essentially, she had created a solution that was very different from anything she had created before. A new fibre, in fact. The solution she had created was so ‘alien’ that one scientist feared it would break his precious machine.
And you know what nerds are like with their machines. You want to break a nerd’s heart, break their telescope…
But what had Stephanie done exactly that was so weird and alien? Her new fibre was stiff. Five times stronger than steel. Stephanie didn’t believe her tests. This can’t be possible! She later said:
I didn’t want to be embarrassed. When I did tell management, they didn’t fool around. They immediately assigned a whole group to work on different aspects [of the material].
This wasn’t just any old new fibre, this stuff was practically bulletproof. Stephanie had just done something so few people thought was possible.
She had just invented Kevlar…
The Bulletproof Soup and One Hell of a Racket
Stephanie learnt that she could make the fibres stronger by heat-treating them. These ‘polymer molecules’, shaped like rods or matchsticks, are highly oriented, giving Kevlar its phenomenal strength. Although it is worth noting that Stephanie was not overly involved in developing the practical applications of Kevlar.
It was soon discovered that Stephanie’s fibre was so strong even bullets could not penetrate it. It paved the way for a plethora of discoveries that have saved thousands of lives, from protective gloves to helmets, from space crafts to bulletproof vests.
It’s also used in tennis rackets but I don’t think a tennis racket has ever saved someone’s life. Not unless you’re trapped in a room with one of those automated ball-firing things and all you have is a tennis racket, then I guess THEN it’s a life-saver…
Stephanie did not just invent the fibre that was woven together to form Kevlar, she also laid the groundwork for Nomex, the flame-resistant nylon-like material used in firefighter PPE. She was also involved in the development of spandex, which became Lycra. But her lasting legacy is in the soup of polymers that could stop bullets.
When Stephanie Kwolek died as recently as 2014, on the exact day she died, the one-millionth Kevlar bulletproof vest was sold.
She was 90-years-old.
One Simple Solution That Made the World a Little Bit Safer
It is impossible to know just how many people have been saved by Kevlar bulletproof vests, but estimates for the number of police officers whose lives have been saved are in the high thousands. You are three times more likely to survive a shooting with a Kevlar vest. Yet we take them for granted. We take a lot of things that keep us safe for granted.
We can’t rid the world of guns. But we can try to protect people from them. Stephanie never set out to do this, of course. Every day we send people out into the public, often police, wearing protective gear. What started as a simple solution to a niggly tyre problem escalated into something we never really think about.
It is thanks to the thousands of unsung heroes like Stephanie that we are as safe as we are. So next time you are out and about, take time to look at all the little things that help make our lives so damn normal. I know it makes me weird, but I was at a set of traffic lights last week and I was thinking:
‘Huh. Someone invented these. That’s nice.’
And I stopped for a moment to thank that man. In my head. Bit weird doing it aloud. Of course we don’t want a world with guns but I am thankful someone like Stephanie helped to make things a lot safer.
And that’s why I love traffic lights. Except when people run a red. In fact, that happens to me quite a lot. I have a theory the universe is trying to kill me in increasingly mundane fashions.
You know, like death by static electricity, things like that…
To invent, I draw upon my knowledge, intuition, creativity, experience, common sense, perseverance, flexibility, and hard work.
– Stephanie Kwolek.
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My Other Blogs: The Indelible Life of Me | To Contrive & Jive
Click Here for Credits (click on image to enlarge)
https://www.invent.org/inductees/stephanie-louise-kwolek, https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/women-scientists/stephanie-kwolek.html, https://www.famousscientists.org/stephanie-kwolek/, https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2480.htm, https://scientificwomen.net/women/kwolek-stephanie-51, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/you-can-thank-chemist-stephanie-kwolek-bulletproof-vests-and-yoga-pants-180972948/, https://amazingwomeninhistory.com/stephanie-kwolek-inventor-kevlar/