Airbag Safety System

Invented by Carl Clark, Class of 1945

Clark began working with airbags when he was head of the Life Sciences Division of the Engineering Department at Martin Company in Baltimore in the mid-1960s. He first proposed the use of airbags to protect astronauts in crash landings of spacecraft, then went on to experiment with airbag systems for military airplanes and commercial airliners.

Recognizing that far more people die on the road than in the air each year, he developed and extensively tested the Airstop Restraint System for cars, the first practical automotive airbag safety system. Clark's system incorporated multiple reusable airbags that inflated when a radar system sensed an imminent crash. (Today's airbags are triggered explosively upon impact.) Clarke's promotion of the benefits of airbags (including the first published reference to side airbags) at conferences and before Congress is credited with helping convince automakers to begin seriously investigating the practicality of adding airbag systems to cars.

As a scientist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1990 and as founder of Safety Systems Company, he continued to pursue new ideas that can save lives on the road. Based on his own research, he has advocated for the use of laminated safety glass (combined with a T-shaped restraining strip he invented) in the side windows of cars, which could prevent laceration injuries and ejections during accidents. He has also developed an airbag bumper that would project several feet in front of the car just prior to a crash, triggered by the same kind of radar detection system he originally proposed using with driver and passenger airbags. Tests show the system could protect occupants from serious injury in a crash into a wall at up to 50 miles per hour.

Earlier in his career, Clark made pioneering contributions to the field of dynamic flight simulation, developing computerized flight simulators for pilots in the X-15 program and for the seven Mercury astronauts.

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