Carl Cyrus Clark, 82, leader in development of air bag

August 30, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Carl Cyrus Clark, an internationally known expert on human acceleration and crash protection whose research contributed significantly to the development of air bags for automobiles and airplanes, died of a heart attack Thursday at his summer home in Thetford, Vt. The longtime Catonsville resident was 82.

"The bottom line in discussing Carl Clark is that people are safer because of his work. He did more for humanity than 99.9 percent of the world's scientists," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said yesterday.

"As a scientist, he had tremendous range and he thought there wasn't a technical problem that he couldn't understand and elucidate. He was one of the most creative scientists I've ever known," Mr. Nader said.

"We have safer highways today because of Carl. He was a fantastically interesting person who was chock-full of ideas and incredibly persistent," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who brought Dr. Clark to the agency in 1971.

"He was very upbeat and had a wonderful aura, but underneath that pleasant smile was a high level of seriousness," Ms. Claybrook said.

Dr. Clark's interest in science began in his childhood. He was born in Manila, the Philippines and after the death of his father was raised in missionary homes in New England.

He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 1944, and his doctorate in zoology from Columbia University in New York City in 1950.

Dr. Clark's dissertation on spectroscopy, the study of the interaction between light and matter, led to a job at Coca-Cola, where he developed the shade of green used in its glass bottles.

In 1955, Dr. Clark was appointed to head the biophysics division of the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at the U.S. Naval Development Center in Johnsville, Pa., where he provided centrifuge training for X-15 pilots and the original seven Mercury astronauts - among them Alan B. Shepard Jr., who in 1961 became the nation's first man to enter space, and future Sen. John H. Glenn Jr., who completed the first U.S. manned orbit of the Earth a year later.

The centrifuge is a simulator that duplicates some of the conditions, including gravitation forces and vibration, that astronauts experience.

While conducting experiments on human tolerance of acceleration, Dr. Clark became the first person to experience the continuous effects of twice the force of gravity for 24 hours.

From 1961 to 1966, Dr. Clark continued his work on human acceleration and crash protection at Martin Marietta Co. in Middle River.

"He was a courageous scientist who put his own body on the line, and I remember when he was conducting hydroplane sled experiments and crash studies in Baltimore that helped prove the protective safety and feasibility of air bags," Mr. Nader said.

Initially, Dr. Clark had intended air bags for use by astronauts but later adapted the idea to automobiles and airplanes.

To help find acceptance for air bag technology, Dr. Clark held positions in Washington through most of the 1970s and 1980s with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Bureau of Standards.

He also established a six-state database for a regional registry that gathered information on traffic accidents from police, ambulance crews, hospitals and coroners, which helped identify safety hazards in automobiles.

"Of course, the automotive industry wanted to muzzle scientists, but not Carl. They could never muzzle him. He was one of the pillars that I drew upon when I wrote Unsafe at Any Speed," Mr. Nader said.

"His contributions are incalculable and can be measured by the lives saved by front and side air bags in today's vehicles," said Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book.

"He even believed in air bags for older people to help prevent them from suffering broken hips. And when you think of it, it's not a bad idea. They were to be worn outside of their underwear," Ms. Claybrook said.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Clark remained a consultant on highway safety and often was called by lawyers as an expert witness in crash litigation cases.

"He continually worked to design a car and its occupant that could survive a 50 mph crash. Keeping everyone safe in a car was his focus," said his daughter, Amy Mansfield of Catonsville.

Friends likened Dr. Clark's range of interests to that of R. Buckminster Fuller, the noted American inventor, architect, thinker and visionary who died in 1983.

When Mr. Nader presented Dr. Clark with a copy of Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, he wrote that it was for someone "for whom science and humanism are mutually enriching."

Last month, Dr. Clark completed a scholarly paper "criticizing the absence of ethical considerations in society's pursuit of nuclear weapons and nuclear power," family members said.

Dr. Clark volunteered at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, where he enjoyed teaching reading. He was a member of the Baltimore Ethical Society and was a former member of First Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

He was an avid student of Russian, Spanish and Chinese, and liked writing poetry.

He was a member of the First Congregational Church in Thetford, Vt., where a memorial service was held Sunday.

Also surviving are his wife of 58 years, the former Elizabeth Taylor; three sons, Roger E. Clark of Philadelphia, Austen G. Clark of Storrs, Conn., and Andrew G. Clark of Ithaca, N.Y.; a brother, Admont Clark of Cape Cod, Mass.; and four grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.