Casimir Zeglen: The Priest Who Invented The Bulletproof Vest

Feb 14, 2024 0 comments

On October 28, 1893, the tranquility of Chicago was shattered with the assassination of its mayor, Carter Harrison, who was shot on the doorstep of his own house. The crime shocked every American but the one who was shook the most was Polish immigrant Casimir Zeglen.

Zeglen, a man of the cloth and profound spirituality, found himself deeply troubled by the recurring specter of anarchist violence targeting public figures since his arrival in America. Determined to confront this epidemic of chaos and bloodshed, he turned his inventive mind towards a solution that could potentially spare countless lives. His brainchild? A revolutionary, lightweight bulletproof vest designed to be discreetly worn beneath ordinary attire, thereby thwarting the designs of would-be assassins without drawing attention to its wearer's vulnerability.

A bulletproof vest being tested in 1923. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Casimir Zeglen was born in 1869, near Tarnopol in Galicia, which was at that time a part of Poland occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the age of 18, he embraced the monastic life, joining The Congregation of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, destiny beckoned him beyond the cloistered confines of his homeland, leading him to the shores of the United States in 1890, where his remarkable ingenuity would soon leave an indelible mark on history.

The tragic events in Chicago spurred Zeglen into action. Over the next two years, he experimented with various materials including bristles, steel wool, wool and cotton. Yet, his efforts yielded only disappointment, as the garments he produced resembled medieval breastplates more than the lightweight, wearable protection he envisioned.

It wasn't until 1895 that Zeglen's breakthrough came to fruition when he stumbled upon the remarkable bullet-stopping properties of silk. This revelation was not entirely new; it had been observed by Dr. George E. Goodfellow of Tombstone, Arizona, as early as 1881. Dr. Goodfellow, during an autopsy, noticed a silk handkerchief in a victim's pocket had significantly mitigated the impact of a bullet. Inspired, he delved into research and experimentation, even crafting vests using layers of silk fabric for protection. Dr. Goodfellow eventually returned to his medical duties, leaving the task of refining and perfecting this concept to Zeglen.

Casimir Zeglen

Zeglen understood that the trick to creating a fabric resistant to puncture lied on the proper method of weaving and on the thickness of the textile. To learn new weaving techniques, Zeglen went to Vienna and Aachen, in Germany, where there are many skilled weavers. Under their tutelage, he honed this craft, learning the intricacies of weaving threads to create a fabric that was both flexible and impenetrable. In 1896, armed with his newfound expertise, Zeglen applied for a US patent for his innovative invention. Less than a year later, his efforts were rewarded with two patents for distinct variants of his groundbreaking armor.

In Tailored to the Times: The Story of Casimir Zeglen’s Silk Bullet-Proof Vest, author Sławomir Łotysz explains how his bullet proof armor was designed:

As a coating layer, Zeglen applied a densely woven linen cloth, under which he added Angora wool. The next was the main layer of silk. It was not woven, but consisted of multiple layers of tightly stacked strings. Threads in each successive layer were arranged obliquely to the ones in the previous layer, and so on. The whole garment was sewn together with a solid silk thread to form a compact whole. The fact that such a prepared fabric was resistant to bullet impact resulted from a combination of two factors – high strength of silk fibers and the number of layers in which they were laid.

To make his invention known to the world, Zeglen began holding public demonstration where he would invite police officers, military men, as well as journalists and the general public, and ask volunteers to shoot at a block of wood protected by a piece of bulletproof cloth. Later on, Zeglen used human cadavers and animals to test his invention. When these proved to be a success, Zeglen used live human targets. Many volunteers came forward ready to test the armor on themselves. After sometime, Zeglen decided that he should not expose these people to danger and that if anyone should sacrifice their life for the sake of science, it would be himself.

Szczepanik’s friend Mr. Borzykowski tests a bulletproof vest upon his servant in 1901.

Zeglen’s biggest challenge, however, was to design a vest that could stop the Krag-Jorgensen rifle bullet. The ammunition used in this weapon, introduced to the US Army in 1894, used smokeless powder—an innovation of the time. This allowed a muzzle velocity of around 600 m/s, which was up to two to three times greater than a revolver round. This steel-jacketed bullet was capable of piercing an oak beam, half a meter thick, from a distance of 600 m. Zeglen’s fabric was too weak to stop a projectile carrying that much momentum.

Zeglen recognized that hand-weaving alone could not achieve the level of protection required to stop the formidable Krag-Jorgensen rifle bullet. His solution lay in mechanization—a mechanical loom capable of producing the tightly woven, resilient fabric essential for effective bulletproofing. However, acquiring such specialized equipment proved to be a challenge. So Zeglen went to Europe where he hoped to find the expertise and machinery necessary to realize his vision. It was there that he encountered Jan Szczepanik, a fellow Polish inventor renowned for his ingenuity and dubbed the 'Polish Edison' for his prolific accomplishments across various fields of invention.

Szczepanik promptly set to work on the task, leveraging the expertise of textile industry specialists to refine the fabric beyond what Zeglen had achieved manually. Armed with this enhanced material, Zeglen returned to America eager to promote his invention to law enforcement agencies. However, his attempts to establish a production line were stymied by prohibitive costs associated with manufacturing the vests.

Jan Szczepanik

Meanwhile, in Europe, Szczepanik began making audacious claims, asserting himself as the sole inventor of the silk vest and even sought deals with foreign entities, including the Russians. Upon discovering this betrayal, Zeglen severed ties with his erstwhile partner. However, lacking Szczepanik's adept business acumen, Zeglen struggled to secure investors interested in backing his invention. Zeglen’s church had financed his endeavors till then, but even the congregation denied further financial backing leaving Zeglen disheartened. Eventually, he parted ways with the Order and pursued other ventures, fading into obscurity as the world largely forgot his name. Zeglen passed away in anonymity around 1927, his contributions unrecognized by the broader populace.

The story of Zeglen's silk bulletproof armor came to a close with its final public demonstration in May 1913. The vest was suspended on a wooden board and pounded with bullets from a .32 caliber revolver, a firearm previously used in numerous tests. However, on this occasion, the vest resembled nothing more than a piece of hole-riddled Swiss cheese. Zeglen attributed the failure to the biodegradation of the silk and vowed to provide a new iteration for further examination. Regrettably, there is no evidence to suggest he ever followed through on this promise.

Zeglen's armor proved inadequate against the growing destructive power of firearms. While the concept of soft armor was sound in theory, it wasn't until much later, well beyond Zeglen's era, that significantly stronger synthetic fibers emerged, rendering soft armor truly effective in its protective capabilities.

“Casimir Zeglen was undoubtedly the inventor of the first working bullet-proof vest,” writes Sławomir Łotysz, “but his concept was eventually discontinued and did not have any major impact on further technological development in this field. What proves that his ideas were not influential is that over the next one hundred years only a very few inventors developing various types of armours referred to Zeglen’s patents, and the majority assumed their own solutions.”

His ideas, however, did have impact on a completely different technology—tires. Zeglen took his knowledge of weaving and applied it to reinforcing car tires using strong silk fabric. He obtained two patents, which became the basis for the launching his next company, The Zeglen Tire & Fabric Co.

Despite his failure to find a backer, Zeglen continued working on his bulletproof fabric. For his final patent, he devised a metal armor plate using a similar method to his improved, one-layer bullet-proof fabric of 1898. He also proposed using a three-dimensional mesh of hard wires, filled with melted softer metal and then rolled together. This innovative invention garnered attention and found mention in subsequent patents, particularly in the context of crafting protective coatings for spacecraft, highlighting its potential applications beyond conventional armor.

# Sławomir Łotysz, Tailored to the Times: The Story of Casimir Zeglen’s Silk Bullet-Proof Vest, Arms & Armour


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}