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After Los Alamos, Fisk helped to spark a pipe-organ renaissance

Globe archive photo

Sunday, King’s Chapel organist and music director Heinrich Christensen, with oboist Andrew Price, performs the last of a series of concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the chapel’s Fisk organ. Installed in 1964, the organ was adjusted for years afterward by Charles B. Fisk (1925-83), the Harvard-educated organ-builder who founded the C. B. Fisk company in 1961.

Fisk’s devotion to ongoing process echoed an earlier career. He started out as a physicist, and, at 18, joined the Manhattan Project, building the first atomic bombs — a irresistibly provocative fact almost always mentioned in discussion of his work. But its impact was profound: While Fisk’s role in the Project was minor, it left an unease that would partially spur his turn to music and organ-building as a full-time endeavor. And, by design or coincidence, the nature of the organs he and his company produced was, in a way, the opposite of his war work.


Fisk came to Los Alamos as a member of the 9812th Special Engineer Detachment, a unit steering enlisted men with technical knowledge into wartime research. He ended up working on detonator design. The “Fat Man”-type plutonium bomb — the kind used for the Trinity test and, later, on Nagasaki — relied on an intricate, interlocking assembly of different kinds of high explosives, arranged so their coordinated detonation would focus the explosive force, compressing nuclear material into a critical mass.

The coordination was a problem. Normal electric detonators work on a time frame of thousandths of a second, far too slow to ensure the necessary symmetry. The solution was the exploding-wire detonator: a gold filament, pumped full of high voltage that vaporized the wire almost instantaneously. It was, in essence, an extraordinarily fast and precise electric switch.

Tracker organs, C. B. Fisk’s specialty then and now, are, by contrast, scrupulously mechanical, rods and rotating shafts — trackers and rollers — linking key and valve, physically connecting finger and air and pipe. They’re more old-fashioned than electric or pneumatic actions, but the superior tactile sense fueled a modern revival of tracker-organ construction, with Fisk in the vanguard. (The three-keyboard King’s Chapel instrument was the first tracker organ of such size built by a US company since the 19th century.) Having helped ignite a machine that seemed to defy human control, Fisk spent the rest of his life reclaiming it: one finger and key at a time.


Andrew Price, oboe, and Heinrich Christensen, organ, perform music of Bach, Marcello, Frandsen, Litaize, Pinkham, and the premiere of Carson Cooman’s “Epicedium,”
Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. at King’s Chapel, 58 Tremont St. (tickets $10-$15; www.kings-cha

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.