Ceramic engineerJoel Moskowitz

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A ceramics engineer, in 1967 Moskowitz used $5,000 in savings to start a company to make ceramic products. “He loved to tell that story about the $5,000,” says his wife, Ann Moskowitz. “At one meeting, I had to interrupt and remind him that he always left out one word: It was our last $5,000.” And Ann was pregnant at the time. But Moskowitz wasn’t making dinnerware or bathroom tile. The company, Ceradyne, made things that needed to be strong and light, like missile nosecones, engine parts, roller bearings and, later, transparent orthodontic braces. During the Vietnam war, it was discovered that small arms fire was injuring helicopter pilots, so Ceradyne responded with bulletproof flooring for choppers.

In 1993, after the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, Moskowitz realized that “Our best troops were killed not by sophisticated technology but by guys in tennis shoes carrying machine guns. There was a realization that we needed a better class of body armor to defeat those kinds of threats.” By 1998, Ceradyne had developed bulletproof ceramic plates for use as body armor, replacing steel plates used in such armor with material that was a quarter the weight, which greatly reduced soldier fatigue. By 2007, the U.S. military was buying 25,000 sets of the armor for troops deployed overseas. Moskowitz loved getting letters from soldiers. “We would get letters from the guys whose lives we saved, who had been knocked down and got up,” said his wife. “Because they’re still here, there won’t be a wall with 50,000 names on it, like there was after Vietnam.” For instance, Mr. Moskowitz said a few years ago, a Special Forces soldier wrote that after a firefight in Afghanistan, saying he found “a machine gun bullet protruding from his vest. It was two inches from his spine, wedged into our ceramic plate.” Moskowitz sold his company to 3M in 2012 — for $860 million. He died March 15 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after battling it for eight years. He was 75.

From This is True for 22 March 2015