Kevlar R&D: An Oral History

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 and summaries by John Kenly Smith, PhD. Video production by Mike Oates and 302 Stories, Inc. Special thanks to the 1916 Foundation, the friends and family of Mary Laird Silvia, and individual donors for support of this project.

For information on the extensive archival materials related to Kevlar in the Hagley Museum & Library collections, please refer to the online catalog at hagley.org/library.

Bob Wolffe

Bob Wolffe, who had a PhD in chemical engineering, worked 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 noted, though, that the most important application was in ballistics.

In the 1980s DuPont decided to produce its own fabricated composite parts instead of just supplying Kevlar fabric. This business did not succeed because the company underestimated the importance of design and testing of aircraft parts. Wolffe eventually left DuPont and started his own advanced materials business. He later worked for an armor firm that did not use Kevlar because high strength polyethylene fibers had better properties.