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.

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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