A woman inventor who pioneered a technology used in protecting cops and soldiers died on Wednesday. Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, was 90. Kevlar is a super-strong material used in bulletproof vests and other body armor, like helmets, and has saved countless lives. Kwolek received the National Medal of Technology in 1996 for inventing it, and was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Kwolek, a chemist who lived in Talleyville, Delaware, died after a "brief illness," according to The Delaware News-Journal. She was working for DuPont, a chemical company, when she managed to figure out how to produce the super-strong compound in 1964. More than 2,500 lives were saved as a result of Kwolek's invention, according to DuPont.
But it took Kwolek, who joined DuPont in 1946, 15 years to score a promotion, according to a New York Times article written in 1999, after she began receiving recognition for the invention. She didn't sound too bitter about it in an interview with the Times, though.
If you were ambitious and applied yourself, you could acquire a great deal of knowledge. There were a lot of bright, creative men. This made the atmosphere in which I worked so stimulating and so enjoyable.
Though the material is best known for its protective qualities, it's also been used to create hyper-light but very strong materials, including canoes, skis, bike tires, sails, brakes, frying pans, and even the wicks for props used in fire dancing. Kevlar is five times stronger than steel of the same weight.
Kwolek solved a problem other scientists had not. Extremely rigid polymers like the ones the chemists worked with were very hard to dissolve. But Kwolek came up with a chemical solution that, when spun a certain way, came out bundled with all the fibers twisted in one direction, according to descriptions from the Times and the Associated Press.
Kwolek told the Times she knew immediately she'd come up with something big. She later told the News-Journal the whole thing was "very exciting, let me tell you."
The stiffness was absolutely spectacular. That's when I said, "Aha." I knew then and there it was an important discovery.
The AP reports that Kevlar was so much stronger than DuPont's previous inventions, the company had to get a new machine to measure its toughness. A Delaware police officer, David Spicer, told the AP that her invention saved his life when he was shot four times while wearing a Kevlar vest in 2001. One hit him in the chest and should've killed him.
If that round would have entered my body, I wouldn't be talking to you right now.
He called Kwolek to thank her.