Karl Clark Fonds Finding Aid
Karl Clark
Karl Clark Fonds
9.6 metres of textual material.--692 photographs

Biography of Karl Clark

Karl Clark

Research Scientist, Industrial Chemist, Educator-- Karl Clark was born on October 20, 1888 in Georgetown, Ontario. His father, Malcolm Clark was a professor of German who taught first as Chair of the German Deptartment at McMaster University and then at the University of Toronto. His mother, Adelaide McLaughlin, was a music teacher at Woodstock College. Karl Clark spent his childhood in Toronto. As a youth he developed a lifelong interest in the outdoors by spending time at the family cabin at Dwight, on Lake of Bays in the Muskoka region approximately 200 miles north of Toronto. Karl Clark matriculated and entered McMaster University in 1907. Although he pursued a BA at McMaster he focussed on science. After his BA he completed a Master's degree in chemistry from McMaster. He then pursued his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois in Urbana. Clark chose to study in the United States at a time when American universities were beginning to be recognized for scholarly research in chemistry. Clark enjoyed the opportunity to study under the internationally respected physical chemist, Professor W.A. Noyes. Clark sat his final exams in 1915 and was awarded his PhD in 1916. Upon graduation Clark applied for service in the First World War but was refused due to poor vision. After several attempts to enter military service he took a position in Ottawa in the Geological Survey of Canada. Clark's position was typical of the contemporary research environment. Most scientists pursued their research interests in federal government offices. World War One brought impetus to industrial research and Ottawa responded with the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Clark would later benefit from such research programs but in 1916 this program proved premature. Clark continued, like most contemporary Canadian research scientists, to address the research needs of federal government offices in a type of post-doctorate fellowship relationship with the Geological Survey. He remained employed in this office until 1920. In this time Clark assumed several assignments that led to his work in the Northern Alberta Tar Sands. First he was assigned to study the qualities of road materials along with geologist Leopold Reinecke. This gave Clark an interest in soil surveying. Then in July 1917 a senior member of the Geological Survey asked Clark to review the work of a colleague, Sidney C. Ells, of the Mines Branch. Ells's work, "Notes on Certain Aspects of the Proposed Commercial Development of the Deposits of Bituminous Sands in the Province of Alberta" gave Clark a detailed introduction to his future career. Finally, in 1918, Clark went to Manitoba to study the difficulties of road maintenance on the Prairies. Clark concluded that the chemical components in Prairie soil made these dirt roads too unstable when wet. He proposed applying a type of oil based material, such as was abundant in Northern Alberta, to Prairie roads to repel moisture. By 1920 Clark's scientific work took him indirectly into the field of tar sands research; by then political and economic factors were combining to create a favorable environment for this field of study.

The Geological Survey of Canada first documented large amounts of bituminous material in Northeastern Alberta in 1875. By 1894 the federal government had unsuccessfully sank a well at Athabasca Landing. After several more unsuccessful attempts using the CPR to transport drilling materials from Toronto to northeastern Alberta, the government briefly opened up tar sands developement to private investors. The federal government concluded this policy in 1920 to prevent the alienation of tar sands land. By the end of the First World War the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research had established itself as the principal federal government office in the field of western natural resource development. By late 1916 the Council assumed the responsibliity to fund and direct tars sands research. However in 1919, when President Tory returned to the University of Alberta from directing the Khaki University in Europe, he disagreed with the Honorary Advisory Council over the direction of tar sands research. Whereas it was agreed the laboratory facilities should operate in the University of Alberta, the Advisory Council wanted formal control with Sidney Ells as the lead researcher. Tory blanched at giving administrative control to the Advisory Council. In the subsequent battle of wills Tory decided Alberta and the UofA would assume responsiblity for research in tar sands and coal classification. Tory consulted Edgar Stansfield of the Federal Mines Branch who recommended Karl Clark and by September 1, 1920 Clark arrived in Edmonton with his family as the first Research Professor in the recently created Research Department at the University of Alberta. The Research Department took provincial affiliation in January 1921 and it became known as the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta. This joint government/university affiliation helped protect research funding in the depths of the depression when other government offices were eliminated. Although not always researching tar sands, Clark remained at the Univerisity of Alberta as a tenured professor for most of the difficult 1930s. The Council's name was changed to the Research Council of Alberta in 1930.

Clark established his research at the University of Alberta in the North Lab building. His first project was a comprehensive summary of extant tar sands research. This involved mainly the work of Adolph Lehmann, a chemistry Professor at the University of Alberta, and Sidney Ells. Clark concluded his main focus should be investigating separation processes for the tar sands. For the moment he abandoned studies of tars sands and road material. Within a year Clark's experiments revealed that tar sands oil separated into a surface froth when dispersed by hot water. This overcame the problem of the specific gravity of tar sands oil which was greater than water and was therefore difficult to separate. By 1922 Clark had hired a full-time assistant, Sidney Martin Blair, and toghether they constructed a model separation plant to prove his process could succeed with industrial quantities. Clark constructed the prototype in the basement of the University power plant building. The provincial government funded construction and acquired tar sand from The McMurray Asphaltum and Oil Company under direction of Thomas Draper. To demonstrate the commercial potential of his process Clark next set up a separation processing plant on the outskirts of Edmonton in Dunvegan. After some trial and error, by 1925 a semi-commercial continuous bituminous serparation plant was operating in Dunvegan. In 1926 Clark and Blair published The Bitumnous Sands of Alberta through the Alberta Research Council. The report was tabled in the Alberta Legislature the same year. Commercial interest in Clark's work grew with this publication. Max Ball, an American investor from Denver, led the first commercial attempt at development in 1930. His company, Canadian Northern Oil, took out oil sands leases on the Horse River (Bituminuous Sands Permit No. 1) and south on the Athabasca river. Three years later, Robert Fitzsimmons opened the International Bitumen Company also in the Athabasa region. Canadian Northern Oil, later known as Abasand Oils, and International Bitumen, later called Oil Sands Ltd., would both play an important role in tar sands development and Clark's career. In 1929 the Alberta Research Council patented Clark's findings to protect his work.

With the success of the Dunvegan prototype separation plant, the question became how to construct a functional industrial scale separation plant in the harsh northern Alberta wildnerness. Moreover, could mining operations locate and supply such a plant with a constant tar sands supply. In 1929 the Alberta Research Council put up $30,000 for a two year project to answer these questions. Clark took directorship of the project. In May an agreement was made whereby the Federal Mines Branch, under Sidney Ells, would oversee the mining responsiblities and the Research Council of Alberta would manage construction of a separation plant. With modifications, Clark dismantled the Dunvegan plant and transported it by train to Waterways, then shipped it over the Clearwater River and constructed it next to the quarry Sidney Ells was creating. Clark next overcame the issue of removing excess water content in the plant's production. This was a technical difficulty that required hiring organic chemist Dr. D.S. Pasternak, an Albertan with a degree from McGill. By the end of summer 1930 the project had produced 15,000 gallons of oil comparble to international standards. For the next three years Clark progressed on technical problems in the Clearwater plant. By 1933 Clark had solved difficult issues concerning mineral salts, ph levels and other important basic principles of the separation process. Unfortunately, at the moment Clark was ready to move from basic science investigations to commercial production, the Research Council of Alberta closed due to the Depression. Clark found himself teaching at the University of Alberta. Ironically, he was in the department of engineering working again on road construction. After two years in the Department of Civil Engineering Clark took a position as an oil research consultant with Trinidad Leaseholds. Sidney Blair, Clark's former assistant, now held a position in the company's London head office. Blair arranged the offer for Clark. After two years work in Trinidad Clark again returned to the University of Alberta, this time as a professor of metallurgy in the mining department replacing Alan Cameron. While teaching Clark maintained his interest in tar sands research. In 1938 Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (CMS) began examining tar sands technology as a fuel source for northern mining projects. Clark was brought to a test separation site in 1939 at Chapman Camp in Kimberey, BC. Clark progressed with new design features at the Chapman Camp test site but CMS decided to use alternative fuel sources. Clark witnessed another closure of a promising test plant.

World War Two brought to Ottawa urgent fuel supply priorities. Abasand and International Bitumen, the two commercial plants that had been slowly progressing towards commerical production, were both struck with a drain on supplies and services. Then in November 1941 the Abasand plant was destroyed by fire. A little later Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. The subsequent investment and development focus on Alaska, and particularly the Alaska highway, further limited the tars sands activities and drained potential investment. To respond, in 1940 Ottawa set up the Wartime Industrial Control Board mandated to investigate Canada's oil resource options in the war and beyond. Clark was consulted for the Alberta tar sands option. In May this committee identified the tars sands as both a potential resource for wartime and postwar industry. Based on this report Ottawa comissioned CMS to complete a set of studies: locate a tar sands deposit large enough to support a plant capable of processing 10,000 tons per day; determine the kind of oil based products that could be produced with the tar sands oil; and reconstruct the Abasnds plant and determine its maximum output. In 1942 Clark was requested to visit the Abasands plant and comment on its progress. Abasands sent its report to Ottawa in 1943 and included Clark's important commentary. Also in the Spring of 1943, the Research Council of Alberta reformed under the direction of N.E. Tanner, Minister of Lands and Mines. Clark immediately returned to tar sands research with the Council's support. He was quickly reunited with Dr. Pasternak and basic tar sands research resumed. Based on Clark's Abasands commentary Max Ball, still affiliated with the Abasands plant, arranged a deal with the Alberta Research Council to have Clark supply research work for the Abasands plant. Clark resumed work on another experimental plant in the North Lab of the University of Alberta campus. In this lab Clark determined most all of the remaining physical properties of tar sands. By then Ottawa had approved the CMS report, and based on it's recommendations, Ottawa announced funding for the Abasands plant and declared it would assume control of the plant for the duration of the War through the Federal Oil Controller's Office. Earl Smith of Canadian OIls, representing the federal government, took responsiblity of the Abasands plant for the remainder of the war. Clark, the Alberta Research Council, and Max Ball were again removed from tar sands development. The provincial government recognized the tars sands potential and quickly returned to tar sands investment. In 1944 the Alberta government invested in a joint venture with Oil Sands Limited, owned by Lloyd R. Champion. Champion had purchased International Bitumen from Robert Fitzsimmons in 1942. For two years after the rebirth of the Research Council Clark had concentrated on the basic science of the tar sands. His work led to a major breakthrough in the separation phase of the tar sands oil process. Clark proved the need for an insulating water layer between individual oil sand grains and the desired crude oil. This led to breakthroughs in clay management and appropriate temperature levels; both vital to tar sands processing on an industrial scale. Clark and Pasternak published an important paper on this discovery in 1946. Clark continued his teaching during this research period and in 1945 he became head of the Department of Mining and Metallurgy.

As the war came to an end C.D.Howe, Minister responsible for the operation of the Abasands plant came under increasing pressure to justify the high expenses and limited results of the Abasands plant. Then in June the plant burned down. Clark continued as a technical consultant, through the Research Council, for the Bitumount project. The plant was completed in the summer of 1949. The opening featured the attendance of all the members of the Alberta legislature. The tar sands were now at the stage of large scale commercial development. Sidney Martin Blair made the final push when he released his provincially commissioned study on the commerical viability of tar sands. Published in 1950 the Blair report concluded a barrel of crude oil could be acquired from the sands and sent to Ontario processing plants for $3.10. The market value would be $3.50. In recognition of this report, the Alberta government convened a symposium on tar sands development in 1951.Clark retired from the Department of Mining Engineering in 1954. He continued to perform research for the Research Council until 1963. He was regularly contacted for advice as tar sands development ramped up to commerical scale. In 1953 the Great Canadian Oil Sands consortium was constituted from Abasand Oils, Canadian OIls Ltd., Champion's Oil Sands Ltd., and Sun OIl Co. Clark, who advised this group informally, signed a formal retainer in 1958. Later known as Suncor, Clark witnessed the start of construction on its first large scale plant. He died of cancer in England in December 1966 before it was completed. Included amongst the many honours Clark received in his lifetime were the Professional Institute Gold Medal for Public Service from the federal government and a lifetime membership in the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. The City of Fort McMurray, centre of tar sands development, has dedicated a street and school in his name. The Research Council of Alberta now resides in South Edmonton on Karl Clark Road.

Title based on content of fonds.

Scope and Content

The Karl Clark fonds consists of professional and private records. The professional records document Clark's work in oil sands research and his teaching and administrative work at the University of Alberta. The format is predominantly texutual and includes letters, minutes, a patent and publications. There are also some photographs in this series. The private records document Clark's family life and consists of letters, diairies, a scrapbook and photos of family life.


The fonds contains 2 series:

1. Professional Records
2. Private Records


Restrictions on Access

All the Karl Clark records are open to researchers.

Related Records

The Provincial Archives of Alberta also holds Karl Clark records. The University of Alberta Archives holds a copy of the inventory of papers under the accession number 75-87.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Acquisition Information

The University of Alberta acquired the records of Karl Clark in a series of 25 small accessions. Mary Clark Sheppard donated all of these records.

Processing Information

The .