Fascinating facts about Stephanie Kwolek
of Kevlar® in 1965.
invent. First to patent.
31,1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania
|Relying on experience and instinct, Stephanie Kwolek invented one of the
modern world's most readily recognized and widely used materials: Kevlar®.
Born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1923, Kwolek was interested in
science and medicine as a child. She attended the women's college of what is now Carnegie
Mellon University in nearby Pittsburgh, and earned a BS in Chemistry (1946); then, lacking
the funds for medical school, she took a research position with DuPont's textile fibers
laboratory in Buffalo, New York.
Kwolek worked with great determination, because she loved the work,
but also because she did not want to lose her laboratory position, as many women did, when
World War II ended. She soon earned a transfer to DuPont's Pioneering Research Laboratory
in Wilmington, Delaware, when it opened in 1950. Here, with the support of W. Hale Charch,
the first Director of the Lab, Kwolek has a string of successes in the search for new and
Kwolek specialized in low-temperature processes for the preparation
of condensation polymers: that is, the creation of long molecule chains at low
temperatures, resulting in petroleum-based synthetic fibers of tremendous rigidity and
strength. In the 1960s, she discovered an entirely new branch of synthetics, liquid
crystalline polymers, and prepared the first pure monomers used to synthesize
But Kwolek was also interested in the intermediates necessary for
this process of synthesis, which, being ultra-sensitive to moisture and heat, too easily
underwent hydrolysis and self-polymerization. So she discovered an acceptable solvent and
created appropriate low-temperature polymerization conditions for these intermediates. The
result was an aramid polymer that most researchers would have rejected, since it was fluid
and cloudy, rather than viscous and clear. Kwolek, acting on instinct, insisted on
spinning out the solution, and the result was astonishing: synthetic fibers much stiffer
and stronger than any created before.
DuPont put its Pioneering Lab to work finding a viable commercial
version of Kwolek's new crystalline polymers, the potential applications for which were
obvious. The result was Kevlar® (first marketed in 1971), a fiber five times stronger
once for ounce than steel, but about half the density of fiberglass. Kevlar® is best
known to the public as the material from the which bulletproof vests are made; and in this
use alone Kwolek's discovery has saved thousands of lives. In fact, Kevlar® has dozens of
important applications, including radial tires and brake pads (a replacement for
asbestos), racing sails, fiberoptic cable, water-, air- and spacecraft shells, and mooring
and suspension bridge cables. It is now used to make skis, safety helmets, and hiking and
camping gear. In commercial terms, Kevlar® generates sales of hundreds of millions of
dollars per year worldwide.
Kwolek spearheaded polymer research at DuPont's Pioneering Lab until her retirement, as
Research Associate, in 1986. She is recipient or co-recipient of 17 US patents, including
one for the spinning method that made commercial aramid fibers feasible, and 5 for the
prototype from which Kevlar® was created. Kwolek continues to consult part-time for
DuPont, where she is also known and respected as a mentor to young scientists---especially
Kwolek has received numerous awards, including the Kilby Award and
the National Medal of Technology. Most recently, in recognition of her own pioneering
career and her encouragement of the next generation of innovators, Stephanie Kwolek won
the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Great Idea Finder
Inventors, A Class Act from The
Great Idea Finder
ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
by Catherine Thimmesh, Melissa Sweet (Ill) / Hardcover - 64 pages (2000) /
A dozen women are profiled in this collection of short, anecdotal biographies
demonstrating that necessity, ingenuity, and luck all play a part in successful
inventions. The final section tells girls how to patent their inventions, and an informed
bibliography will do just that.
Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America
by Anne L. MacDonald / Paperback - 540 pages (March 1994) / Ballantine Books
A sprightly, informative chronicle of women inventors in America--a two-steps- forward and
one and a half steps back history that aptly mirrors the rise and fall of feminist
movements over two centuries.
Women Inventors: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World
by Susan Casey / Paperback - 144 pages (October 1997) / Chicago Review Press
These inspiring stories of women inventors take the reader on a step-by-step journey
process of inventing.
Women Inventors & Their Discoveries
by Ethlie Ann Vare, Greg Ptacek (Contributor) / Hardcover (March 1993) / Oliver Pr
Interesting facts about 10 obscure American women who
invented famous things fill the pages of this very readable book. Each informative chapter
is devoted to the life of one remarkable woman.
ON THE SCREEN:
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 /
A bullet travels up to 3,000 feet per second. So how can it be stopped?
Surprisingly, there are many answers to this question.
Du Ponts: America's Wealthiest Family
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / Biography Channel / Less than $25.00 /
Learn of the family credo that says a du Pont's name should only appear
in the paper when they are born, married or die! In rare interviews,
family members including former Delaware Governor Pierre du Pont IV
offer an inside view of life in America's richest family.
ON THE WEB:
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual
awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
Featured Stephanie Kwolek for her invention of Kevlar®..
Inventors Hall of Fame
Located at Inventure Place, the online home of creative minds.Industed Stephanie
Kwolek for her invention, Optically Anisotropic Aromatic Polyamide Dopes and Oriented
Fibers Therefrom Kevlar. Patent Number 3,819,58.
Kwolek at Du Pont
Stephanie L. Kwolek developed the first liquid crystal polymer which
provided the basis for Kevlar® brand fiber. Kwolek earned a degree in
chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. She joined DuPont
in 1946, enlisting in the search for polymers and lower temperature
condensation processes needed to produce specialty textile fibers.
Researchers struggled to develop a stiffer and tougher nylon-related
fiber until 1965, when Kwolek broke the deadlock by devising a liquid
crystal solution that could be cold-spun.
Kevlar at Du Pont
Kevlar® is well known as the material in body armor worn by police
officers and soldiers. In 1964 Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont’s Pioneering
Research Laboratory synthesized an aromatic polymer (one spun with a
solvent rather than melt spun) that produced a durable and exceptionally
"Lady Edisons" --Women Inventors in the 20th Century
From Innovative Lives at the Smithsonian Institution written by J.E. Bedi
WITI HALL OF FAME
Stephanie Kwolek inventor of Kevlar was induted in 1996, She is a member
of the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists,
Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia
DID YOU KNOW:
- Kwolek's name appears on 16 patents; she is sole patent holder
on seven. She has authored or co-authored 28 scientific publications and presented her
work at national and international conferences.
products® mentioned in this article are DuPont registered trademarks.
Sources in BOLD Type
page revised October 12, 2006.
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