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.

Ted Merriman

Ted Merriman was instrumental 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.

To make sure that Kevlar did have adverse health effects, DuPont did extensive testing of the material at its own toxicology facility, the Haskell Laboratory. In the early 1980s, Merriman was made the official “Product Steward” for Kevlar to make sure that there were no health or safety problems for DuPont’s customers.