Carl Clark, who died August 24 at 82, was an expert on human acceleration and safety who did pioneering work on air-bag technology that later found its way into automobiles.
An authority on glass who developed the green coloring used in old-style Coca-Cola bottles, Clark became a leading advocate of replacing the shattering tempered glass in windshields with a glass-plastic laminate that would prevent passengers from being ejected during accidents, a leading cause of auto fatalities.
Clark's work on air-bags came about as a result of his work on the X-15 and Gemini space program while he was director of the biophysics division at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at the Naval Air Development Center. He also developed a huge computerized human centrifuge that was used to train astronauts under high-gravity conditions.
With both air-bags and the centrifuge, Clark's first research subject was himself. (Later clients included the early astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn.) He had himself dropped from successively higher elevations and crashed into walls while encased in air-bags. He spun himself up to 11 Gs until he blacked out, and once spent 24 straight hours at 2 Gs to investigate whether life aboard a spinning space station would cause nausea.
"This was in the days when you just went out and did things," he told the Baltimore Sun in 1997. "We were all trying to help out."
Clark was born in the Philippines, where his father worked as an engineer. His ancestors on both sides had been Congregational missionaries for generations, and Clark described himself as a busybody out to change the world. When his father, an engineer, died young, the family returned to live with relatives in Vermont.
He enrolled early at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he majored in physics while working nights in a funeral home, an experience he credited with interesting him in biology. He did graduate work in zoology at Columbia and wrote his dissertation on optics. His experience with spectroscopes led to a consulting job in which he developed the specification for Coca-Cola Green, the color the company used to protect its product from light while leaving the bottles clear enough to inspect for contamination.
After a stint teaching in the biology department at the University of Illinois ("I continued my study of dynamic cell chemistry while many of the faculty in the department were identifying the clams in the Illinois River," he told the WPI Journal in 1997), Clark went to work at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory, near Philadelphia, and later for the Glenn L. Martin Co., in Baltimore.
In the early 1960s, he realized that his air-bag experiments, which NASA had rejected as a means of protecting astronauts on re-entry, might have uses in forms of transportation other than space capsules. He advocated air-bag use in buses and airplanes, and at one point participated in an experiment staged by the Federal Aviation Administration in which a DC-7 loaded with experimental safety devices was crashed into a hillside. Photos of the result, featured in a 1964 issue of Life magazine, showed dummies strewn amid smoldering wreckage. All were shattered except Clark's, protected by an air-bag.
"I figured the dummy may have experienced 5 Gs," Clark said. "It was obviously a breakthrough in crash protection." But the FAA declared the test inconclusive, not the last time Clark's innovations would be frustrated by bureaucracies.
He was featured in Ralph Nader's 1965 exposé, "Unsafe at Any Speed," and the following year he unveiled a design for the "Safety Car," which incorporated air-bags, a collapsible steering column, and numerous other innovations that would one day be standard. After a dispute with his bosses at Martin over whether he should testify before Congress, he resigned.
He worked on standards for flame-retardant sleepwear, founded the biology department at WPI, and developed a database on traffic accidents. In 1977, he went to work at the Office of Crashworthiness Research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where he advocated for air-bags and safer windshields. He also pushed for bumper air-bags that would be activated by radar.
Oddly, for a scientist so involved in auto safety, he held but one patent, for an emergency retrorocket braking system. He also proposed air-bag underwear for seniors that would prevent hip injuries, another of his visionary projects that went unproduced.
He is survived by his wife of 58 years, three sons, and four grandchildren.