American National Biography     

   

 

Fisk, James Brown (30 Aug. 1910-10 Aug. 1981),  physicist and

science administrator, was born in West Warwick, Rhode Island,

the son of Henry James Fisk, a businessman, and Bertha Brown.

Fisk's childhood was spent at various places. When he was several

years old, the family moved to Tacoma, Washington, and later

to Long Beach, California. The early death of his mother sent

Fisk and his siblings to their maternal grandparents in Providence,

Rhode Island. Fisk went to the Providence Technical High School

before enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1927. 

 

 Fisk received a broad education in science and engineering at

MIT, majoring in aeronautical engineering, a field made popular

by Charles Lindbergh's recent solo flight across the Atlantic.

After graduation in 1931, he remained at MIT as a research assistant

for Charles Stark Draper, the rising aeronautic engineer. Then,

in 1932, encouraged by Draper and supported by a Proctor Travelling

Fellowship, Fisk sailed for England to study nuclear physics

at Cambridge University, with residence at Trinity College. While

there, he worked in the famed Cavendish Laboratory and published

two papers (one with a coauthor) on gamma rays. In 1934 he returned

to MIT to complete his dissertation, "The Scattering of Electrons

from Molecules," which extended the quantum theory of electron-scattering

from that involving monatomic to diatomic molecules. He received

his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1935. 

 

 During 1935-1936 Fisk taught physics at MIT. Then he moved to

Harvard University as a junior fellow in its Society of Fellows.

There he investigated the disintegration of nuclei by high-energy

radiation and built, with a colleague, a Van de Graaff electrostatic

accelerator for nuclear research. An associate professorship

in physics brought Fisk to the University of North Carolina,

Chapel Hill, in 1938, the same year he married Cynthia Hoar of

Concord, Massachusetts; they would have three children. They

did not stay long in North Carolina because in 1939 Mervin J.

Kelly, then director of research at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories

in New Jersey, recruited Fisk for its electronics research department.

William Shockley, Fisk's former colleague at MIT and now at Bell

Labs, had recommended Fisk to Kelly. 

 

 World War II transformed Fisk from a promising young physicist

into a distinguished scientist and scientific organizer. During

the war he headed a group at Bell Labs to reproduce and improve

a powerful microwave generator called the magnetron. Invented

in Britain, the device later became the heart of radar, which

contributed so much to the Allied victory. To perfect radar,

Fisk's group cooperated closely with the radiation laboratories

at both MIT and Columbia University. Fisk's knowledge of nuclear

physics also found use when a comprehensive report on nuclear

fission that he coauthored with Shockley, in August 1940, alerted

the British to the plutonium route to an atomic bomb. At the

end of the war, Fisk was appointed assistant director of physical

research in charge of electronics and solid-state research at

Bell Labs. He organized the superb team of scientists who two

years later invented the transistor. 

 

 Fisk's career took unexpected turns in the postwar period. In

late 1946 he was offered a professorship at Harvard. Before he

could accept it, however, Carroll L. Wilson, a former classmate

at MIT and now general manager of the newly established Atomic

Energy Commission (AEC), "drafted" him to become the AEC's first

director of research in January 1947. In this position, Fisk

helped revitalize the national laboratories the AEC inherited

from the wartime Manhattan Project and further their research

and development of nuclear weapons. Concerned about the shortage

of scientific manpower in the field of nuclear weapons research,

Fisk at first resisted calls by scientists to expand the AEC's

support of basic research at universities. But later he did bring

the AEC into a joint program with the navy to sponsor high-energy

physics and expand AEC support of science at universities. 

 

 In August 1948 Fisk left the AEC for the Gordon McKay Professorship

in Applied Physics at Harvard. This second academic job did not

last long either. Kelly won Fisk back with an offer of director

of physical research at Bell Labs in June 1949. Because of his

broad understanding in science and engineering and his quietly

effective leadership, Fisk advanced rapidly within Bell Labs

to become vice president for research in 1954, executive vice

president in 1955, and finally president in 1959. In these positions,

Fisk gave scientists and engineers the freedom to do research

and publish their findings. During his tenure, Bell Labs, the

premier industrial laboratory in the world, continued to play

a leading role in communication technology, which was revolutionized

by the use of satellites, and in military research and development,

such as on the controversial antiballistic missile system (ABM). 

 

 Fisk himself remained a major adviser to the U.S. government,

with membership on the AEC's General Advisory Committee, the

Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization

(ODM-SAC), and its successor, the President's Science Advisory

Committee. In 1954-1955 Fisk was associate director of the ODM-SAC's

Technological Capability Panel, which, under the direction of

James R. Killian, president of MIT, produced a report to the

National Security Council that decisively accelerated the U.S.

missile and other defense programs. 

 

 Fisk rose to national prominence in 1958 when President Dwight

D. Eisenhower appointed him head of the U.S. (and western) delegation

to the Geneva conference of experts on a nuclear test ban. From

1 July to 21 August, western and eastern experts sought to devise

ways to detect clandestine nuclear tests in preparation for a

possible test-ban treaty to control the arms race and to allay

fears of radioactive fallout from nuclear tests. The resulting

agreement, which included proposals for control stations on both

U.S. and Soviet territories, was hailed as a major breakthrough

in the Cold War. Although subsequent technical developments proved

the Geneva system to be inadequate, it nevertheless began the

process that eventually led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. 

 

 Fisk retired from the presidency of Bell Labs in 1973 and remained

chairman of its board for another year. He died in Elizabethtown, New York. 

 

 A major player in the American military-industrial complex,

Fisk had a life and a career that reflected the increasing interdependence

of science, technology, and society in the twentieth century.

His scientific, engineering, and organizational talents enabled

him to cross between basic and applied research and move easily

among academe, industry, and government. In each, he was recognized

as a versatile physicist and outstanding scientific organizer.    

 

 

 Bibliography

 

 There is no known collection of Fisk's papers nor a full-length

biography of him. Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Atomic

Shield: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission,

vol. 2: 1947-1952 (1969), provides information on Fisk's service

in the AEC. James R. Killian, Jr., Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower:

A Memoir of the First Special Assistant to the President for

Science and Technology (1977), describes Fisk's role as a science

adviser to the U.S. government. On the Geneva conference of experts

on a test ban in 1958 and Fisk's performance as chairman of the

western delegation, see Harold Karan Jacobson and Eric Stein,

Diplomats, Scientists, and Politicians: The United States and

the Nuclear Test Ban Negotiations (1966). The best obituary is

by his Bell Labs colleague William H. Doherty, "James Brown Fisk,"

National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 56 (1987):

91-116, which includes a selected bibliography of Fisk's publications.  

 

 Zuoyue Wang

 

 

 

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