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.

Don Sturgeon

Donald Sturgeon used his PhD in engineering mechanics to evaluate the properties of Kevlar fibers especially for use in composite structures. Although the fiber was incredibly strong in tension, it had relatively poor performance in compression. The peculiar features of Kevlar fibers required that Kevlar re-enforced 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 its remarkably strong and light fiber.

Because Kevlar was difficult to make and process, the company 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.