What I mean by figure it out, did the technology exist to produce a material like kevlar in 1917 or 1945? Or is kevlar a product of modern invention that could only be made today regardless of knowing how a century ago?
Just wondering how many lives would have been saved if we had that technology. And yes, I’m aware kevlar doesn’t stop rifle bullets, painfully aware as I wear one everyday. But it sure would have helped with shrapnel.
Kevlar is almost the least important part of modern battle armor. It doesn’t stop high-velocity fragments or bullets, which were actually more prevalent in those earlier wars because the rifle rounds were higher energy (compare a .30-06 M1 Garand to a 5.56mm M4 for instance).
And fiber “bullet proofing” was already known. Multiple layers of silk were sometimes used to stop pistol rounds, which is all you can ask of ballistic fiber protection.
As to whether aramid fiber could have been synthesized, it depends on how much information you’re willing to allow to time travel. I’m not a chemical engineer, but my limited understanding is that the state of the art was just beginning to figure out how to create polyamide synthetics like Nylon. That line of research led to Kevlar, but it took 20-30 years. So, if you tell a team of talented chemical engineers in the 1930s to 1940s, exactly what they needed to do to create this miracle ballistic fiber, they probably could pretty quickly.
Yeah, some of the big industrial chemical companies like the infamous German company I.G. Farben, America’s Union Carbide, Dow, DuPont etc, if you gave them the appropriate amount of data and process descriptions on synthesizing kevlar via time machine into say 1935 I have little doubt they could repeat the steps. As I understand it none of the raw inputs or processes would have been totally alien, just the long hard work of actually doing the research needed to be done still, if you just gave them the finished product of that research the chemists and chemical engineers of the 1930s working at those industrial chemical concerns with large production facilities I believe could certainly process kevlar.
While the aromatic polyamide fibers that make up products like kevlar weren’t being made until the 1960s, some of this line of research has an ancestry in research going back to 1926 at DuPon in synthetic fibers, and Bayer and Monsanto had done some research in this field for many years as well.
Showing these guys how to make kevlar would be a huge boon to their efforts, but it wouldn’t be akin to trying to teach say, Ben Franklin how to do–Franklin was a smart man but was an old school natural philosopher with no sort of real industrial scientific process behind him, he may have learned a bit more about chemistry if you gave him the information but would have no means of really putting it to the use. The 1930s scientists at DuPon or etc would.
I echo gnoitall’s sentiments that kevlar would not have probably significantly changed the fatality and casualty rate in WWII due to the types of ammunition predominantly used in that war. Maybe some aircrews would have survived flak better? I’m not sure, it seems like kevlar would be an improvement over 1940s era flak jackets (at least the fabric portion, I imagine the metal plating would still be required.)
Bullets didn’t cause that many casualties- https://achh.army.mil/ A report on the causative agents of battle casualties in World War II showed the comparative incidence of casualties from different types of weapons for several theaters. Compilers of the report believed that, while the more detailed subdivisions within their three major classes were open to question, their findings on the percent of total casualties due to small arms, artillery and mortars, and “miscellaneous” were reasonably accurate.
From these they drew the following conclusions:
1. Small arms fire accounted for between 14 and 31 percent of the total casualties, depending upon the theater of action:
The Mediterranean theater, 14.0 percent
The European theater, 23.4 percent
The Pacific theaters, 30.7 percent.
2. Artillery and mortar fire together accounted for 65 percent of the total casualties in the European and Mediterranean theaters, 64.0 and 69.1, respectively. In the Pacific, they accounted for 47.0 percent.
Shrapnel was the big killer (besides disease, of course) and kevlar stops that nicely.
The data you put forth there does not suggest shrapnel was the big killer (by the way that link is to the AMEDD Center of History home page, not a specific article), but rather artillery (which is actually something I already knew–I’ve seen any number of reports that show casualty rates–particularly on the German side in the Western front, were majority caused by artillery), artillery is not synonymous with shrapnel. Many artillery deaths are due to explosive force of the exploded shell.
Shrapnel was not a big killer in WWII largely because it was no longer being regularly used. While shrapnel has become a catch-all-word for anything that explodes out at someone, it actually is named after a person (a British General from the first half of the 19th century) and specifically refers to lead balls packed inside an explosive shell. Shrapnel artillery rounds were designed to be used with a time-fuze, and would ideally detonate over an enemy position, raining all the lead balls (shrapnel) on the hapless soldiers below. That is what shrapnel is, properly speaking. It can also be extended to other similar devices which explode lead shot around the point of detonation (some grenades and land mines are made this way.)
Our troops in WWII and the enemy’s troops, when killed by artillery were usually killed by concussive force of the explosion, being literally blown apart, or being hit by shell fragments exploded out from the exploding shell. Shell fragments and shrapnel are not the same thing.
The data from WWII AFAICT is not incredibly detailed on the specific causes of death in terms of type of trauma from the artillery shell, for a lot of guys who died in the field it appears that level of data was not collected (there is somewhat more data in Korea), we do have more data of that type for guys who survived long enough to be sent to a field surgeon, as the field surgeons kept good records of the traumas and deaths. For people who survived long enough to be seen by a surgeon from an artillery shell, the most lethal injury was “amputation”, which probably means the person’s body parts being literally blown off. Concussion and shell fragments have much lower fatality rates in surgery.
There is a reason we quit making shrapnel shells after WWI–they were considered outdated and less effective. AFAIK the reason for the switch to pure chemical explosive shells is because it was concluded you can kill a lot more people by putting a big explosion onto them than by sending a bunch of lead balls flying at them from a low altitude. I believe that the injuries from shell fragments were essentially "lucky extras’< and the true lethality of artillery was in its explosive force. There’s generally available lethaltiy radii for different artillery shells in WWII, because being inside those radii essentially meant you died, from the actual explosion. A kevlar vest offers essentially no protection from that.
A kevlar vest would offer improved protection over the “nothing” they had for shell fragments, but it is unclear that that would make a significant impact. It should be noted that of people who made it back to field hospitals rifle wounds actually were the most likely wound to be fatal even with treatment. That doesn’t mean rifles were out-killing the artillery, but rather they were producing more initially survivable wounds that were ultimately fatal.
I don’t really think that demonstrates that most of the hazard is from the shell fragments, it shows that the shell fragments have the ability to be lethal at range, but I think there is a reason that in WW2 reports there were talks about a radius of lethality, if a shell lands on a squad of men, that entire squad will be killed and not from fragmentation–they will be killed by the actual explosion of the chemical explosive in the shell. While you could get unlucky and get hit with a shell fragment 500 ft away, the likelihood with WW2 shells of the 105mm and 155mm type, is if you were 500 ft away you end up not being harmed. In none of the writings about WW2 that I’ve ever seen has there ever been written an expectation of significant lethality from a single shell at 1800 ft from impact, someone getting hit by a fragment at that distance would be considered a “lucky break” for the artillery team.
The high number of “amputation” deaths associated with people hit by shells is also suggestive that a lot of the deaths were from the explosive, being hit with a shell fragment several hundred feet away is not likely AFAIK to cause the sort of severe amputations documented from mortally wounded shell victims in the Korean War.