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"It was my preferred entertainment when I was a kid, so when I set out to be a writer, it was perfectly natural that I should write the sort of stories that I used to enjoy reading."
- John Brunner

Synthetic Spider Silk  
  Artificial fabric thread as strong as steel.  

A roofed enclosure is under construction on an asteroid; the fabric will be like a tent over a small valley.

Libby concentrated for an instant, then looked puzzled. "But look -- This valley is a thousand feet long and better than five hundred wide. At half of fifteen pounds per square inch, and allowing for the arch of the roof, that's a load of one and an eighth billion pounds. What fabric can take that kind of a load?"

"Cobwebs."

"Cobwebs?"

"Yeah, cobwebs. Strongest stuff in the world, stronger than the best steel. Synthetic spider silk, This gauge we're using for the roof has a tensile strength of four thousand pounds a running inch."

From Misfit, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1939
Additional resources -

Ordinary spider silk is very tough; it is a protein fiber that has a tensile strength comparable to that of high-grade steel and about half that of fibers like Kevlar. Efforts to make garments with it date back to 1709 (if not earlier), when gloves woven from spider silk were presented to the Academy of Science in Paris.

I can't find any clear evidence that synthetic spider silk as described by Heinlein was sought prior to the publication of the story in 1940. There have been recent attempts to create artificial or synthetic spider silk:

In 2000 Canadian biotechnology company Nexia successfully produced spider silk protein in transgenic goats which carried the gene for it; the milk produced by the goats contained significant quantities of the protein, 12 grams of silk proteins per liter of milk. Attempts to spin the protein into a fiber similar to natural spider silk resulted in fibers with tenacities of 23 grams per denier...
(From Spider Silk)

Weaving with silk from silkworms is at least 5,000 years old and silkworms have been bred for much of that time.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Misfit
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
  Tech news articles related to Misfit
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Heinlein

Synthetic Spider Silk-related news articles:
  - 'Smart Silk' In Quantity

Articles related to Material
Self-Adapting Composite Heals Itself
Strong Metal, Light Metal - Same Metal!
New Glass Tough As Steel
Blackest Black? New Disordered Nanostructured Material

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