July 30, 2015 00:04 UTC

Science in the News

Scientific and Engineering Inventions Save Lives

The Science of Safety: How seat belts and Kevlar arrived.
The Science of Safety: How seat belts and Kevlar arrived.

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
  • Scientific and Engineering Skills Lead to Inventions that Have Helped Save Lives

Scientific and Engineering Skills Lead to Inventions that Have Helped Save Livesi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

This is Science in the News, in VOA Special English. I’m June Simms. Today Shirley Griffith and Bob Doughty tell about two recent inventions that have helped to save lives. We will also tell about the people who developed them. 
 
History of Seat Belts
 
Most cars have seat belts as part of their equipment. Seat belts protect drivers and passengers in case of accident. They also reduce the effect of a crash on the body. Safety experts estimate that the restraining devices save thousands of lives a year in the United States alone. Worldwide, some experts, say the devices have protected up to a million people.
 
The first seat belt was said to have been created in the 1800s by George Cayley of England. He is remembered for many inventions, especially for early “flying machines.” 
 
The United States first recognized the invention of an automobile seat belt in 1849. The government gave a patent to Edward J. Claghorn of New York City so that others would not copy his invention. Claghorn called the device a Safety-Belt. It was said to include hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object. 
 
Modern Seat Belt Developed in Sweden
 
Other inventors followed with different versions of the seat belt. But more than 100 years passed before the current, widely used seat belt was developed. It resulted from the work of a Swedish engineer, Nils Bohlin. His three-point, lap and shoulder seat belt first appeared on cars in Europe 50 years ago. 
 
Bohlin was born in Sweden in 1920. After completing college, he designed seats for the Swedish aircraft industry. The seats were built for the pilot to escape from an airplane in case of disaster. Bohlin’s work with planes showed him what could happen in a crash at high speed. In 1958, Bohlin brought that knowledge to the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo. He was the company’s first chief safety engineer. 
 
At the time, most safety belts in cars crossed the body over the abdomen. A buckle held the restraints in place. But the position of the buckle often caused severe injuries in bad crashes.
 
Nils Bohlin recognized that both the upper and lower body needed to be held securely in place. His invention contained a cloth strap that was placed across the chest and another strap across the hips. The design joined the straps next to the hip. 
 
Volvo was the first automobile manufacturer to offer the modern seat belt as a permanent addition to its cars. It also provided use of Nils Bohlin’s design to other car-makers. 
 
The Swedish engineer won many honors for his seat belt. He received a gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences in 1995. He died in Sweden in 2002.
 
American Stephanie Kwolek Invents Kevlar
 
Kevlar is another invention that has saved many people from serious injury and death. Kevlar is a fibrous material with qualities that make it able to reject bullets. Added to clothing, the material protects security officers and soldiers across the world.
 
The fibers form a protective barrier against gunfire. Bullets lose their shape when they strike Kevlar. Those bullets look like mushrooms, and do not enter the body. Most threats to police and security officers come from handguns. They wear Kevlar vests to protect the upper body. Soldiers wear more extensive clothing protected with Kevlar against heavier ammunition.
 
Kevlar might not have been invented had Stephanie Kwolek been able to seek a career in medicine. From childhood, she wanted to be a doctor. But she lacked the money for a medical education. 
 
Today, thousands of people are glad that Stephanie Kwolek became a research chemist. In that job, she developed the first liquid crystal polymer. The polymer was a chemical product that formed the basis for Kevlar.
 
Stephanie Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. As a child, Stephanie loved science. Later, she studied chemistry and other sciences at a Pennsylvania college now known as Carnegie Mellon University. 
 
She got a job with the DuPont chemical company in 1946. It was the beginning of a career with the company that lasted about 40 years.
 
By the 1960s, Dupont already had produced materials like nylon and Dacron. The company wanted to develop a new fiber. Stephanie Kwolek was part of a DuPont research group that asked to work on its development.
 
At the time, she was searching for a way to make a material strong enough to use on automobile tires. If tires could be improved, automobiles would need less fuel. Ms. Kwolek needed a new way to make stiff, resistant fibers for the job. 
 
Experiments Lead to Creation of Kevlar
 
Her experiments for the project were supposed to produce a clear substance similar to a thick syrup. Instead, what Stephanie Kwolek produced was unexpected. It was a liquid that looked cloudy or milky. She said she might have thrown it out. But she decided to let it sit for awhile. 
 
She told VOA that she was warned the liquid could never complete a required process. The process calls for the chemical to be pushed through the small holes of a spinneret. She remembers that the man operating the device at first refused to accept her material. He probably suspected it had solid particles that would block the holes. However, after awhile he said he would try it. She says she thinks he was tired of being asked, or might have felt sorry for her. 
 
That person must have been surprised when the substance passed the test. It returned from the laboratory with more firmness than anything Stephanie Kwolek had made before.
 
Ms. Kwolek did not tell anyone that she had produced something new and strong. She said she was afraid there might have been a mistake. Repeated testing, however, did not find anything wrong. She and her group worked to improve the discovery. DuPont first manufactured large amounts of Kevlar in 1971. The material is found today in hundreds of products from sports equipment to window coverings.
 
Over the years, Stephanie Kwolek has received many awards. Her honors include membership in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 
 
Two Men Largely Responsible for Placing Kevlar in Protective Clothing
 
Getting Kevlar placed in protective clothing resulted mainly from the work of Lester Shubin and Nicholas Montanarelli. Mr. Shubin was educated in chemistry. He worked for the United States Army in the 1970s. At the time, Mr. Montanarelli was an Army project director. He was trained in engineering and psychology. 
 
The two Americans were working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. They were searching for a way to protect people in public life from gunfire. Mr. Montanarelli knew about DuPont’s recently developed fiber, and the two men decided to test it.
 
The men fired handguns at several materials protected by Kevlar. The material changed the shape of the bullets. It seemed a good candidate to help defend police officers and soldiers.
 
Mr. Shubin was able to gain financial help for a field experiment. Thousands of police officers in many cities began to wear the vests. But Mr. Montanarelli said it was difficult to get companies to make them. The companies feared legal action if the vests should fail.
 
Then came December 1975. A gunman shot at a policeman in Seattle, Washington. One bullet hit the officer’s hand. But a bullet fired very close to the policeman struck his chest.
 
The officer survived. The bullet did not enter his body. He felt good enough to protest being kept in a hospital that night to make sure all was well. The incident helped get manufacturers to stop worrying about legal action. They began making the vests.
 
Today, about three thousand people are members of the Kevlar Survivors’ Club. DuPont and the International Association of Chiefs of Police organized the group. All the members have escaped injury or death because long ago, a chemist named Stephanie Kwolek produced something unexpected. 
 
This Science in the News was written by Jerilyn Watson. Our announcers were Shirley Griffith and Bob Doughty. I’m June Simms. Join us again next week for more news about Science in Special English on the Voice of America. 



This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Myanmar hopes to replace poppies with coffee

    Audio In Myanmar, Replacing Poppy Plants with Coffee

    Myanmar’s Shan State is the second-largest opium-producing area in the world. But the area's poppy farmers are now earning less for their crops, as the price of poppy fluctuates. Now, the United Nations is hoping many farmers in Shan State will decide to grow coffee instead. More

  • FILE - In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a wanted poster. An Afghan official said his government is examining claims that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead.

    Audio Afghan Government: Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died in 2013

    The Taliban earlier this month said Mullah Omar is alive. Also Wednesday, U.S. lawmakers sought details about the group to enforce a nuclear deal with Iran; Turkish warplanes attacked targets in northern Iraq; and Zimbabwean officials are seeking an American dentist who killed a protected lion. More

  • Fish teeth and shark scales from sediment in the South Pacific Ocean dating around the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, photographed under a high powered microscope. (Credit: E. Sibert on Hull lab imaging system, Yale University)

    Audio Dinosaur Death Leads to Rise of Fish

    Tens of millions of years ago, an asteroid hit what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The event led to a global mass extinction that has been linked to the end of the dinosaurs. New examination of fossils from sediment shows what that great disaster led to: a modern age of fish. More

  • Video Turkey Bombs Kurdish Rebel Targets in Iraq

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has expressed support for Turkey’s military operations against Islamic State militants and the Kurdish rebel group the PKK. The rebels have been fighting Turkey for greater minority rights for more than 30 years. More

  • Audio North Korea: 'No Interest at All' in Nuclear Deal

    U.S. special diplomat to North Korean talks is meeting with Chinese and South Korean officials about restarting talks with North Korea on its nuclear program. However, North Korea has said it is not interested in giving up its weapons. The six-party talks were suspended in 2009. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio Folk to Rock: When Dylan Went Electric

    Fifty years ago, folk music legend Bob Dylan rocked out at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island on an electric guitar. He was widely booed. The audience may have been unhappy with Dylan’s performance that day, but it changed the direction of music and culture in the United States. More

  • Audio Why Do Mosquitoes Choose to Bite You?

    Mosquitoes need blood to survive and their favorite target is humans. They are completely driven by smell. How do they find their victims and why do they prefer some people more than others? New research now shows how mosquitoes choose who to bite. More

  • 'You're Giving Me the Creeps!'

    "You're giving me the ...!" The jitters, the creeps, the willies, the heebie-jeebies, goose bumps, butterflies, and a heart attack ... you can give all these things to other people. Are they good or bad? Read on to find out! More

  • Audio Everyday Grammar: Can I, Could I, May I?

    English teachers and parents used to try very hard to get young people to use "may" when asking for permission. Now it seems that "can" or "could" works just as well. Learn about the rules for asking permission with these modals. More

  • Video The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving

    In this classic American story, we learn about the hunt for a famous pirate's treasure and the greedy desire for wealth. One couple, Mr. and Mrs Tom Walker, learn the danger of making a deal with the devil. They want the treasure but learn there is a high price to pay. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner
Confessions of an English Learner blog

Tell us About Our Programs