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Robert A. Sparks (1928-2001)

Bob Sparks died July 29, 2001 at the age of 72, in a car accident near Tillamook, Oregon. The accident also claimed the life of his beloved wife Nonie. Bob was born August 16, 1928 in Hollywood, California. He received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at UCLA. He was a pioneer in the use of digital computers for crystallography, beginning with the Nat’l Bureau of Standards Western Automatic Computer (SWAC), one of the world’s first digital computers, running it at night for crystallographic calculations and replacing the vacuum tubes one by one as they burned out. He worked on SWAC during the 1950’s with his advisor, Prof. Kenneth Trueblood, and was proud to be co-author on several papers with Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin for three-dimensional Fourier calculations on SWAC to solve the hexacarboxylic acid derivative structure of vitamin B12, the largest structure of that time. Following his Ph.D. he was a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Hodgkin at Oxford U. He served in the US Quartermaster Corps during the Korean War, where as Bob wryly recounted, the army chose to use his skills testing plastic trays for durability instead of continuing his collaboration programming of the 'Giant Brain' at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. At IBM Research in New York in 1960 he co-published with Peter Gantzel and Ken Trueblood the UCLA Structure Factor Least Squares program. He was the founding director of the Statistical and Computing Center at the U. of Hawaii before returning to California to become Director of Research Information and Data Processing at Syntex Research, 1965-1969. Bob returned to his Crystallographic roots, co-founding Syntex Analytical Instruments to develop and manufacture computer-controlled single-crystal diffractometers. This set the course for the rest of his career, as Bob remained a driving force behind the development of four-circle and CCD diffractometers for Syntex, Nicolet, Siemens, and finally Bruker Nonius. He served as ACA treasurer from 1980 to 1985. With Ken Trueblood, he developed a national course for teaching crystallography. In 1998 he received an ACA public service award for his teaching. In 1978 he founded California Scientific Systems (CSS) with A. Christensen and S.K. Byram, to develop and manufacture powder diffraction software and automation systems. CSS was acquired in 1982 by Nicolet. His untimely death brought many messages which praised his vast and understated knowledge, his infectious enthusiasm, his patience with everyone willing to learn, and his drive to pursue his vision of what was right for crystallography. Professional dedications to him include the twinning workshop at ECM 2001, sessions at the Pittsburgh Diffraction Conference 2001 and the ACA-San Antonio 2002, and a tribute in Madison at Bruker AXS.
Susan K. Byram
25 June 2009