Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Former Sandia labs director dies

By MELANIE DABOVICH Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 05/06/2008 12:57:28 PM MDT

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.

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The transistor started the electronics revolution of the late 20th Century. Solid State Devices were smaller, used less power, and were much more reliable than the tube technology that proceeded them. Small, rugged transistors made radios truly portable and inexpensive. Transistor radios eventually lead to personal media devices like the Walkman and the iPod.

Transistors were the first of many semiconductor devices constructed of silicon and other elements. From transistors came Integrated Circuits and the modern electronics revolution. We take the reliability of solid state devices for granted these days. Few remember how finicky and flaky tubes were. Tubes burnt out, shorted out, and just faded in and out. Trouble shooting a tubed TV set or Radio was a black art. Transistors were much easier, they either worked or failed to work. Transistors failed at a much lower rate then tubes and failed either at the very beginning of their life cycles or at the very end.

Transistors allowed electronics to become much more modular; circuit boards replaced tubes and wires. Reliability went up; as did ease of repair. The only downside was that individual components became less and less replaceable. The days of replacing a single resistor or capacitor or diode became a fond memory. In many instance the individual devices became far too small to pull out or replace by ordinary repairmen. Repair became replacement as modularization took over. Many times the entire device became disposable. Cheap transistor radios lead the way. The Battery powered devices sold quickly and were just as quickly thrown away. There are probably more Walkmans in landfills then on peoples hips these days; just as there will be more iPods in the waste stream than on people's ears at some time in the future. A typical iPod is expected to last a year and a half. The life span of tubed radios were much longer.

Be that as it may, electronics have invaded every nook and cranny of our lives. Modern cars absolutely depend on their fuel management computers to help them pass smog requirements. Burger emporiums depend on pre-programed registers to ring up value meals. Homes are made more secure by motion sensors and key-pad alarm controls. LCD s have made large screen TVs a easy splurge for most people. Not only that, LCD s have reduced the weight of TV sets considerably.

We like to think of the late 20th Century as the "Atomic Age." While Little man, Fat Boy and their decedents made their marks on the era, they maybe get more press then they deserve. Yes, there was the ICBM and there were nuclear powered vessels but they had less impact on day to day life then the humble and simple transistor. Even fearsome nuclear weapons eventually depended on solid-state devices to guide them to their intended targets. Nuclear power stations too depended on sensors and control systems that used transistors and their descendants the I.C. Chip. Modern life is inextricably depends on cheap, sturdy, and reliable solid state devices to function. Silicon rules the age we live in much more than we realize.
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