This strong, all-natural material was used to make the first bulletproof vest more than a century ago—but scientists have barely begun to tap its potential

On March 16, 1897, in a dusty Chicago square, an expert shot walked eight paces, raised his revolver and fired at the chest of the Reverend Casimir Zeglen. A 35-year-old priest then serving at St. Stanislaus' Roman Catholic Church in the city, Zeglen was hit squarely by the bullets and fell to the ground. Moments later, the crowd that had gathered cheered uproariously as Zeglen got back up to his feet, raised his hands, and announced that he was unharmed.

The event was designed neither as an execution nor as theater. Zeglen had himself hired the marksman to test an invention he would go on to patent as the world's first “soft armor.” Zeglen had worked out the ideal design by experimenting with the weave, direction and layering of a soft, fine, natural cloth. His fabric of choice—and the one that would save his life—was silk. Zeglen's bulletproof vest would be marketed to royalty and presidents, officials who were the primary targets of anarchists and revolutionaries and to police officers and detectives whose lives were at risk every day in the 19th-century world of violence and anarchy. By the 1900s they were sold across the world, and had been bought by a number of heads of state.

The idea had occurred to the priest around four years earlier, when the news of the assassination of Chicago's mayor on the doorstep of his house was reported, to the horror of everyday Americans. Particularly sensitive to violence, Zeglen seemed more shocked than others—horrified enough to wonder if there wasn't a way to create clothing so thin that when worn would be unknown to the attacker, but so strong that it could stop the penetration of an assassin's bullet (or blade), even at close range. Read More