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Scientist Carl C. Clark; Pushed for Air Bags in Cars

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006

Carl C. Clark, who died Aug. 24 of a heart attack at age 82, was a remarkably versatile scientist who was best known for his pioneering efforts in the development of the automobile air bag. His experiments in the 1960s proving that air bags save lives helped pressure automakers worldwide to begin working on air bag systems. He was a resident of Catonsville.

Dr. Clark died in Thetford, Vt., shortly after having lunch with family and friends at a restaurant near the family's summer cabin.

Besides his lifelong efforts to make cars safer, Mr. Clark researched the stress of acceleration on space travelers and the biological effects of high-energy radiation. He also created wearable air bags for the elderly to guard against hip fractures; invented a retrorocket braking system for cars; and, as a graduate student in the early 1950s, came up with the light-green shade of Coca-Cola bottles.

"What was unique about him was his enormous range," said consumer activist Ralph Nader, who relied on Dr. Clark's findings for his landmark book "Unsafe at Any Speed" (1965). "He was a renaissance pioneer in the science, technology and actual testing of crash-protection systems."

Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hired Dr. Clark in 1977 and described him as "a gentle man with a great sense of humor."

"Just the number of lives saved by air bags alone is astounding, not just in the United States but worldwide," she said. "His idea was a great idea."

Dr. Clark's work with air bags began in 1961 when he became head of the life sciences division of the Engineering Department at the Baltimore-based Glenn L. Martin Co. He did not invent air bags, but he began exploring their use as a way to distribute pressure during collisions and thus prevent potentially fatal injuries. Initially, he had in mind using an air bag safety system to protect astronauts in crash landings of spacecraft.

Never reluctant to use himself as a guinea pig in his experiments, Dr. Clark was the first person to crash test an air bag system. First he built a large box. He lay down between two air bags inside the box as it was lifted and then dropped several times from increasingly greater heights. The system kept him unscathed, and he went on to experiment with air bags for military airplanes and commercial jetliners.

Although he was convinced that his air bag system was a breakthrough in air-crash protection, government regulations did not require it. Airline manufacturers considered air bags a needless expense.

Well aware that far more people die on the roads than in the air each year, he began working on an air bag safety system for automobiles. His invention, called the Airstop Restraint System, relied on reusable air bags mounted at various points in the car, along with air seats, pressurized air canisters to inflate them and a radar system that would detect an imminent crash and inflate the bags just before impact.

Proud to call himself a troublemaker and a busybody, he grew increasingly frustrated with the resistance of the automobile industry in the face of strong evidence that air bags save lives.

"It was frustrating to see the opposition of the auto companies," he told a 1997 edition of the WPI Journal, a publication of his alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "They would tell my bosses that their research showed that air bags don't work, at the same time that I was doing work that showed that they worked very well. They also advanced the notion that everybody dies in catastrophic crashes and that there was nothing that could be done, except to try to educate the 'nut behind the wheel.' "

In 1969, he became head of the Task Group on Industry Self-Regulation of the National Commission on Product Safety. The commission was the forerunner to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, founded in 1972.

Carl Cyrus Clark was born in Manila, where his father was an engineer with General Electric's international division. He was 2 years old when his father died and his mother moved the family back to Vermont to be near relatives.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1942 and a master's degree in 1944, both in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. While in school, he worked nights at a funeral home. He told WPI Journal that the job might have contributed to his developing interest in biology and his concern for people in need.

He received a PhD in zoology from Columbia University in 1950 and taught zoology at the University of Illinois from 1951 to 1955. At Illinois, he used his expertise in spectroscopy to develop the precise shade of green that Coca-Cola uses for its glass bottles.

In 1955, he accepted an appointment to lead the biophysics division of the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at the U.S. Naval Development Center in Johnsville, Pa. He had a joint appointment at the nearby University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

At the acceleration lab, he trained X-15 pilots and Project Mercury astronauts to withstand the higher gravitational forces (Gs) they would experience in flight. He knew those forces firsthand. He strapped himself into a giant centrifuge, a simulator that spins people at high speeds and duplicates some of the conditions of space travel, including gravitational forces and vibration.

To find out how the human body would be affected by extended spaceflight, he entered the centrifuge during the Thanksgiving weekend of 1957 and stayed for 24 hours, with the centrifuge spinning at 2 Gs. During his simulated flight, he discovered that he could stand, sleep, move around a bit and even cook on a hot plate. He also moved his head at various rates to measure the precise moment when nausea became a problem.

He and his fellow scientists "pushed ourselves right up to the limits," he told the WPI Journal. "I was unconscious on the centrifuge perhaps 10 times. That was the whole atmosphere then."

From 1977 until his retirement in 1990, he was a physical scientist at NHTSA's Office of Crashworthiness Research, where he spent many years lobbying for the use of air bag technology in automobiles. Air bags finally became standard equipment in automobiles in the mid-1990s.

In later years, he investigated the use of laminated glass to prevent ejections through the side windows of cars and trucks. He also worked on air bag bumpers that would deploy just before a crash.

More recently, he had been working on seltzer-bottle-size air bags embedded in the undergarments of elderly people to prevent hip fractures.

"He tried to promote it," Claybrook said, "but no one would listen to him."

In retirement, Dr. Clark volunteered at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, tutoring students with reading difficulties. He also studied Spanish, Russian and Chinese, wrote poetry and compiled his family's genealogy.

His final scholarly paper, completed a month before he died, criticized the absence of ethical considerations in society's pursuit of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Elizabeth Taylor Clark of Catonsville; four children, Roger Clark of Philadelphia, Austen Clark of Storrs, Conn., Andrew Clark of Ithaca, N.Y., and Amy Mansfield of Catonsville; a brother; and four grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company