Stephanie Kwolek and her Bullet Proof Fiber in Honor of Ada Lovelace Day, 2011

Glass Cutter's Jacket made of Kevlar, invented by Stephanie Kwolek. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

Glass Cutter’s Jacket made of Kevlar, invented by Stephanie Kwolek. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

October 7th is Ada Lovelace Day, and the Finding Ada Project.  Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on an Analytical Engine in 1842, and Lovelace wrote something akin to the first programs for this forerunner of the modern computer.  Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson, a social technologist, journalist and writer who was tired of the tech industry’s excuses regarding the lack of women speakers at conferences.

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike. The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who carried out a study which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models.

I knew I wanted to use this photo from my and Stratoz’s visit to the Smithsonian, of a glass-cutter’s jacket made of Kevlar, which was invented by Stephanie Kwolek, as part of her work at DuPont, in 1965.    Being glass artists, we were both drawn to this jacket!  The holes, though counter-intuitive, are to ventilate the Kevlar, which is heavy and hot.  The image of a bullet proof vest since it came to the market in 1975  has become part of our culture, but the fact that a woman invented the fiber has not.  Stephanie Kwolek was born in 1927, in New Kensington, PA(a Pennsylvanian!), and loved to draw, and wanted to be a fashion designer.  Then she considered medical school, and took chemistry in preparation and loved it.  There were opportunities for her because of WWII and the need for women to work in the sciences, while men were at war.  She was hired by DuPont, and tenaciously stayed after the war was over, and in fact until she retired.

Kwolek worked with polymers, and was experimenting with ways to reinforce tires, and found a polymer that wouldn’t melt, and when she added a solvent, it didn’t have the usual consistency of molasses, but more like water.  Intrigued, she took it to the man in charge of the spineret, who was not interested in spinning something that flowed like water, but she persisted, and finally he consented, and it spun beautifully.  I love the evolution of her dream of designing to fashion, to spinning polymers that eventually became the substance five times stronger than steel, and can stop a bullet, and has saved over 3000 lives.

Stephanie Kwolek, chemist and inventor of Kevlar, the material of bullet proof vests

Stephanie Kwolek, chemist and inventor of Kevlar, the material of bullet proof vests

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  1. Fascinating. I must confess I knew kevlar only by the inside of my bicycle tires; it’s the reason I don’t have many flats. I’m so excited to learn it was conceived by a woman!!!

  2. I love it that she feels “useful” as she said it because she inspires young people, especially girls. She said she wasn’t exposed to science as a young girl. Thanks for educating me today. This would be a great story in a kids publication like Highlights.

    • I’m glad to share this story! I loved reading about science when I was a girl in the 70’s, but mentioned it once when I was at summer camp, and the other girls started calling me a “mad scientist” and I felt very self-conscious.

  3. Stories like this make me wish I was still teaching… so many girls would love to read this.