ALBUQUERQUE—Morgan Sparks, who led Sandia National Laboratories for nearly a decade and invented a device that has revolutionized almost every aspect of modern life, has died.
Sparks died Saturday at his daughter's home in Fullerton, Calif., Sandia said Tuesday in a news release. He was 91.
Sparks worked for 30 years at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey before taking over as director of Sandia in 1972. He served in the post until his retirement in 1981.
Sandia and Bell labs officials said Sparks invented the first practical transistor, a semiconductor device that led to devices such as personal computers, cell phones and DVD players.
Transistors work something like light switches, flipping on and off inside a chip to generate the ones and zeros that store and process information inside a computer.
Sparks joined the Semiconductor Research Group at the New Jersey lab in 1948 just as three of the group's physicists—John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley—were developing the first transistor for which they won the Nobel Prize, said Peter Benedict, a spokesman for Bell. The New Jersey lab is the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent.
Sparks conducted materials science research
with the group and worked with fellow team members Shockley and Gordon Teal to help develop the microwatt junction transistor in 1951.
Junction transistors began replacing vacuum tubes in electronic devices such as portable radios. Soon, transistors became essential in electronic computers and their production grew monumentally after the emergence of the microchip in the 1960s.
Benedict said Bell lab scientists who worked on early transistor technology created something that is fundamental to everyday life.
"They created a new field of science and new manifestations of matter. They were scientists who brought fundamental science to real world needs," Benedict said.
Sparks rose through the management ranks during the 1960s and 70s at Bell lab and the Western Electric Company—the manufacturing arm of American Telephone and Telegraph—before taking his position as director of Sandia.
Current Sandia director Tom Hunter, who was a young staff member at the lab when Sparks was director, said Sparks made a big impact "on all of us."
"He set the framework for Sandia to become a multi-program lab. He was widely recognized for his ability to engage the labs in many new areas that proved to be important for our future," Hunter said in a statement. "He was a credit to the lab and, true to our mission, provided exceptional service to the nation."
Sparks was active in civic life in Albuquerque following his retirement, serving on the boards of Presbyterian and Lovelace hospitals, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Albuquerque Academy. He also was chairman of High Desert Investment Corporation until 2007.
Doug Collister, president of High Desert, said Sparks—his friend for the last 30 years—had a rich group of friends he kept in contact with through his many endeavors.
Sparks often could be found joining in a round of golf while enjoying the warm New Mexico sunshine, Collister said.
"He was wise, thoughtful and kind, and he took his time and was not quick to rush to judgment. He had keen insights ... it was an honor to have worked with him and to call him a friend," Collister said. "I mean, it's amazing when you think about the fact that he was there when the transistor was born. How do we live without them anymore?"
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Sparks set a high standard of professional and efficient management at Sandia.
"He recognized the future need to channel lab science into technology transfer, and he laid the groundwork to link defense-based research to applications that now impact our lives every day," Domenici said in a news release.
Sparks was born in 1916 in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and raised in Texas. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry at Rice University before receiving his doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1943.
Morgan Sparks said the fact that his father's scientific accomplishments were relatively unknown is a tribute to the elder Sparks' modesty.
"We knew him as a great father and husband, and it was surprising to hear about his accomplishments because it was something he never talked about at home," he said. "I knew my dad had something to do with (the transistor), but it was not until the whole culture went digital that his work became apparent to all of us."
Sparks was preceded in death by his wife of 57 years, Elizabeth MacEvoy Sparks. The couple had four children, including Margaret Potter of Waitsfield, Vt.; Gordon Sparks, also of Waitsfield; Patricia Fusting of Fullerton; and Morgan Sparks of Burlington, Vt.
A memorial service will be held in Albuquerque later this month.