Her Invention Saves Lives Every Day But You Don’t Know Her Name
Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist and inventor. Source: (forbes.com)
Stephanie Kwolek. Remember that name. She is the award-winning inventor and chemist that developed Kevlar, a material used in hundreds of applications, most notably for bullet-proof vests. Her groundbreaking invention in 1965 has saved the lives of countless police officers, military members, and extreme athletes, yet few people remember her name. Let’s look at the remarkable life and innovation of Stephanie Kwolek, one of the most important inventors you’ve never heard of.
Kwolek contemplated careers in teaching, medicine, and fashion design. Source: (bustle.com)
A Diverse Childhood
Stephanie Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. As a child, she was bright and curious. She loved to explore the fields and woods around her home and made careful observations about the trees, wildflowers, and grasses that she found. She also learned to sew and developed a fascination with different types of fabrics. She toyed with being a fashion designer, teacher, doctor, and chemist.
Kowlek was bold and confident, which earned her a job at DuPont. Source: (digital.hagley.org)
A DuPont Chemist
Stephanie Kwolek graduated from the women’s college of Carnegie Mellon University and hoped to enroll in medical school to become a doctor. The only trouble was, she had no money. She applied for a job as a chemist at several places, including the DuPont Company. After her interview at DuPont, the research director, W. Hale Charch, the inventor of cellophane, told Kwolek he would get back to her in two weeks. Kwolek then asked if he could speed up his decision-making process because she had other offers on the table. Charch, impressed with her assertiveness, hired her on the spot.
Kwolek enjoyed combining chemistry with her love of fabric. Source: (notimerica.com)
Chemistry and Fabric
Beginning in 1946, Kwolek worked for DuPont in the area of polymer research and was thrilled with the opportunity to combine two of her interests—fabrics, and chemistry. In fact, she was so interested in the work she was doing at DuPont and motivated by the possibilities she saw that she shelved her plans for medical school and embraced the title of chemist.
At first, Kwolek was a novelty as one of the few female scientists at DuPont. Source: (inventions.si.edu)
A Groundbreaking Female Scientist
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Stephanie Kwolek was one of just a few women working as scientists at DuPont. She was not deterred by this. Instead, she threw herself into her work. She even offered to take on a project that none of the male chemists wanted to tackle—developing new, lightweight material for tires. She started examining this task and conducting experiments in 1964. A year later, she was onto something big.
Kwolek's inventions have changed lives. Source: (dupont.com)
A Happy Discovery
One of Kwolek’s experiments yielded an unexpected result. She assumed the chemical mixture would give her a substance like nylon polymer, a thick, clear liquid. Instead, she had a thin, cloudy mixture. She very nearly threw out the compound, thinking it was a mistake, but she was also intrigued by the substance and wanted to learn more about it. From this mixture, Kwolek sought to make fibers by spinning the substance in a machine. To her amazement, the fibers were stronger than nylon.
Kevlar is strong and durable. Source: (whip-stitch.com)
Finding Uses for the Fibers
Kwolek and her supervisors were curious about the new fibers and did experiment after experiment to test the strength and stiffness of the material. They found that the new fibers were much stronger than anything else they had ever created. The next step was to put the new material, named Kevlar, into practical applications. Kevlar is now used in a variety of products, including sports equipment, building materials, aircraft parts, parachutes, fiber-optic cables, and, of course, bullet-proof vests.
J.R. Ramirez as Det. Jared Vasquez in TV’s Manifest wears a bullet-proof vest made of Kevlar. Source: (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/Warner Brothers/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
The Kelvar material is tough, durable, thick, and unyielding. Made into Kevlar vests, the fabric is strong enough to stop a bullet from penetrating the material. Today, law enforcement and military personnel utilize the Kevlar vests as a form of protection. Kwolek is credited with saving the lives of thousands of people who would have been killed by a bullet had they not been wearing a vest made from the material that she invented. Kwolek, who died in 2014, once said, “I feel very lucky. So many people work all their lives and they don’t make a discovery that’s of benefit to other people.”