“Necessity is the mother of invention”
Words to live by; or so thought Alex A. Clarke shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Dallas, Texas. It seems that Clarke was growing tired of the rough spots on his elbows acquired from his frequent visits to his friendly neighborhood tavern. So, in 1916, he invented a sanding machine designed specifically for sanding and restoring wood bar tops. Word spread quickly around the Dallas area about Clarke’s invention and, as a result, so did demand. So, Clarke arranged for the manufacture of these bar top sanders with a friend in Chicago who owned a small foundry and machine shop. Soon schools were ordering the Clarke Sander to restore wood desks, so, in 1922 he moved to Chicago to oversee the manufacturing and sales of his increasingly popular invention.
Through the mid-20’s demand increased, and Clarke added a handle to his sander for use in wood floor restoration. He also added a line of vacuum machines to the existing sander products to make quick work of jobsite clean-up. Demand soon outgrew Clarke’s manufacturing capacity, so, in a bold move, in 1929, Clarke moved the entire operation closer to the raw material of his sand-casted components – sand! Not just any sand, but the fine white sand found on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Clarke moved his company to Muskegon, Michigan, into a new building on McCracken Avenue funded by the Muskegon Industrial Fund.
Financial difficulties fell on the company in the early 1930’s, and Clarke was soon removed as manager of day-to-day operations. In 1940, Ernie Cooper and a business partner purchased the company stock out of liquidation. In 1942, Clarke employed 30 people and its sales reached $400,000.
As World War II drew to a close, Ernie Cooper began designing new products and formulated a sales plan to drastically expand the company's presence in the cleaning equipment industry. He added floor polishers, vacuums and even small hand tools to the product line and, in 1946, reached an annual sales level of $4,000,000.
The 1950’s saw more growth, expansion and new product development for Clarke. Throughout the decade Clarke introduced the FM Floor Maintainer, the DU-8 Rental Sander and the industry’s first battery powered autoscrubber, the Clarke-A-Matic. Clarke was also active in acquisitions during this period, buying Porter-Cable’s sanding machine division, The Hilger Company, and the Modern Power Sweeper Company. In 1959, Clarke was acquired by the Studebaker Corporation and renamed the Clarke Floor Machine Division. Annual sales reached $9,000,000. Studebaker continued Clarke’s sales and product development expansion for the next twelve years, when, in 1971, Studebaker combined its Gravely division with Clarke to form Clarke-Gravely.
Ownership changes were common for Clarke in the 1980’s beginning with Gravely’s sale of Clarke to McGraw-Edison in 1982, who, in turn, sold Clarke to Cooper Industries in 1985. Under Cooper, Clarke acquired American-Lincoln (Industrial Sweepers and Scrubbers) and Delco (hot/cold water pressure washers) to augment the product line. Cooper also relocated the Clarke operations from Muskegon to Siloam Springs, Arkansas in 1985.
In 1986, Clarke was purchased by a former McGraw-Edison executive, James Mills, who combined Clarke with American-Lincoln and Delco to form Clarke Industries, Inc. In 1988, Mills moved Clarke from Siloam Springs into its current home in Springdale, Arkansas and, in 1989, incorporated Clarke Industries with Mills’ Thermadyne Industries, a manufacturer of cutting and welding equipment. Under Thermadyne, Clarke purchased the A.L. Cook Company, out of Greensboro, NC, in 1995 and entered the propane floor care equipment arena. In 1996, Thermadyne sold Clarke Industries to the Incentive Group, from Copenhagen, Denmark, who, two years later, combined Clarke with KEW to form ALTO U.S., Inc., one of the largest cleaning equipment manufacturers in the world. In May 2004, Clarke once again changed hands and ALTO U.S., Inc. was acquired by Nilfisk-Advance Group, headquarted out of Broenby, Denmark.
Throughout its history, Clarke has been an industry leader in new product innovation and development. This entrepreneurial spirit of innovation is alive today with a focus on productivity, durability, ergonomics and operator safety.
1956 – PS26/PS30 Electric, Gas and Propane Floor Scrubbers and DU-8 Rental Sander
1958 – First battery powered floor scrubber, the Clarke-A-Matic BP 20
1959 – Clarke introduces the FM Floor Maintainer
1963 – TB Series Automatic Scrubbers
1965 – First Dual Motor Upright Vacuum Cleaner, the Model 550
1969 – First wide-area vacuum, the 580 SpaceVac
1970 – First Carpet Extractor, the 903 Super Steamer
1971 – Clarke produces the 1,000,000th FM Floor Maintainer
1980 – Leader Automatic Scrubber Series
1992 – Vision Automatic Scrubber Series
1997 – Encore Automatic Scrubber Series
2001 – Wash&Rinse Carpet Extraction Technology
2004 – Rider Scrubber Technology with Joystick Control
2005 – BOOST Orbital Scrubbing Technology for Automatic Scrubbers