Still Saving Lives
By J. Michael Krivyanski
While most people seek a relaxed life after retirement, Norman Shorr has continued working to make the world a safer place. At 87, he has enjoyed an engineering career over six decades long. During that time, he has obtained numerous patents, worked on military projects, and created devices used daily to protect the lives of thousands of people, and he's still not slowing down.
As a prime example of his continued vigor, since retiring in 1997, Shorr has used his engineering knowledge to develop a bulletproof vest able to stop armor-piercing bullets fired from a handgun. When the vest was tested at the H.P. White Laboratory in Street, Maryland, it stopped all 16 of the 9-millimeter steel bullets fired at it. While most common bulletproof vests used against armor-piercing bullets weigh more than 40 pounds, Shorr’s weighs only 12 pounds. It doesn't just catch a bullet like other bulletproof vests but is designed to pulverize it. When the bullet hits the vest, the hypersonic compression wave that develops travels quickly through the material and reflects its energy back against the incoming bullet, destroying the bullet before it can do any damage.
Shorr also recently developed a thick composite material made of fiberglass marbles that can stop rocket-propelled grenades like metal does. Tests on an early version of the cheap, lightweight material proved it as strong as metal of the same thickness. This material can be used for armor against rocket-propelled grenades and other projectiles. The material reflects and scatters a grenade's enormous energy, preventing the projectile from focusing its heat along the line of trajectory.
Norman Shorr was born into a poor immigrant family that lived in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Because of the depression, college didn’t seemed possible for him, but it became a reality when he was awarded a college scholarship from the Civic Club of Allegheny County. He attended Carnegie Tech, which later became Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied chemistry. Shorr went on receive a Ph.D. in engineering in 1967 from California Coast University in Santa Ana, California. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he got his first engineering position with Duart Plastics, where he devised anti-personnel mines made of plastic that couldn't be discovered by mine detectors. He then went to work for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he worked on 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines.
With a background in aircraft engines and plastics, Shorr was then hired by Goodyear Aircraft Corporation. He worked in the aircraft plant on the company’s blimp project striving to develop a stronger and lighter blimp. "If I completed a job, there was always another one ready for me, and the jobs were always volunteered to me," Shorr recalls.
Shorr’s next stop was PPG, where he obtained many patents, including PPG's first from the former Soviet Union. This involved stopping asbestos transport rolls from scratching glass during the manufacturing process. "I noticed that everyone always did what everyone did yesterday, and the process never changed. I attacked it from a chemical standpoint," Shorr recalls. He solved the problem by studying the different types of asbestos. The asbestos causing the problem was 14% water of crystallization, meaning once it got down to 86% material, it became harder than glass. He found a type of asbestos that was only 1% water of crystallization, and PPG obtained a patent for using it in the manufacturing process. Besides the Soviet Union, 28 other countries licensed the patent.
Another memorable project for Shorr was developing the bulletproof glass for presidential limousines after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. "Nobody gets a job protecting the president of the United States by having a lottery ball jump out of a slot. I had been doing armor work for our military service for three years, and when I was offered the job, I was glad to do it," Shorr proclaims. This resulted in a glass material that could stop a bullet by absorbing the energy from a bullet's impact, and it still sees use today.
Shorr was then asked to apply his impact-resistant glass to the problem of birds flying into the windshields of planes flying in migratory paths. He went to Ottawa, Ontario in Canada to test the glass he developed, as that was the only place in the world with a cannon, not operated by combustion, that could shoot test chickens at the glass with enough velocity. The results were good, but some adjustments had to be made. "I had a failure, but I made an improvement. The first time you try something there's no reason it's going to work. The first idea comes out of your head," Shorr says, revealing an inventor’s mindset.
On yet another front, Shorr is currently putting his engineering expertise to work for a solution to the problem of terrorism. He's working on a project to develop a composite material that protects infrastructures against any type of terrorist attacks. It could protect structurally important sections of bridges and buildings from such attacks and prevent them from collapsing.
As an engineer with a desire to protect people, Norman Shorr continues to look for more projects. "I feel I can make a difference. Everything I've done involves trying to save large numbers of people, and I continue to do that," he says of his mission.
J. Michael Krivyanski is a freelance writer in Allison Park, Pennsylvania.