Centennial Wrap-Up: The Atom Smasher’s Unique Place in History

One year ago, I gave a presentation at the Forest Hills Centennial Symposium on the Westinghouse atom smasher and its place in Forest Hills history. I ended with some points about why the atom smasher is so great (aka a partial statement of significance). There’s no recording of the presentation, but here is a summary of my concluding remarks:

  • The Westinghouse atom smasher is an iconic relic from the very dawn of the atomic age. Very few such machines or artifacts remain.
  • The earliest research here made discoveries that contributed to humankind’s fundamental understanding of nuclear physics, paving the way for all later nuclear developments. (Also, it is all that is left to represent the entire history of the original Westinghouse Research Laboratory, which brought many important inventions to the 20th-century world.)
  • It (and the work done here) is a direct ancestor of some of the first major successes in peaceful nuclear power, like the Shippingport power plant and others.
  • While the Manhattan Project National Park— 3 major sites that contributed to the making of the atomic bomb—was established in 2015, the Forest Hills Research Lab and Atom Smasher are a rare, early example of atomic research for power generation, medical uses, and other peaceful uses. I think it’s really important for people to also know and remember Non-Bomb atomic history. (However, as the atomic bomb was one of the major events of the 20th century, the Forest Hills Lab does have some connections to that work, although it was not a main point of research here.)
  • And, while we’re here considering Forest Hills in the past and future, the atom smasher’s place IN this neighborhood is a telling artifact of a bygone era— I think it’s really meaningful to see it where it is. It shows a completely different mindset, literally on the brink of a new world, that is difficult to imagine today. Seeing it in place gives people a tangible connection to that era.

Forest Hills Centennial Symposium Oct. 12

Forest Hills, PA is hosting a symposium as part of the borough’s centennial celebrations! I will be there to do a presentation about the atom smasher! Saturday, October 12, 2019, 1-5 pm.

Attention, Atom Smasher Supporters!

The atom smasher needs your help

As you may know, Pfaffmann + Associates proposed the idea to move the Westinghouse atom smasher to the site of the new Forest Hills Municipal Building, but that proposal will depend entirely on fundraising and people willing to help. They recently posted this notice:

“Now that the Forest Hills New Municipal Building is underway, I [architect Rob Pfaffmann] am posting to remind anyone who can devote time and leadership on the future of the Atom Smasher need to step forward. We are willing to donate probono time on technical feasibility and budgeting, but if this is going to be successful we need residents, Westinghouse Alums, and others with experience in fundraising to step forward! rob@pfaffmann.com”

— Posted on the New Forest Hills Municipal Building Facebook page.

 

So if anyone out there is interested and able to help out, or offer support in any way, please let them know asap!

 

 

Creative Preservation in Miniature at the Carnegie Science Center

Over the holidays I finally got to see the model Westinghouse atom smasher in the Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad and Village display. Kudos to the Science Center for creating such a unique and popular way to keep its history alive. There is always a long line of people snaking around the miniature railroad exhibit—that’s probably thousands of people who have now seen the atom smasher for the first time!

 

Close attention to detail is given to recreating all the individual elements, buildings, etc., in the miniature village. The exhibit’s brochure tells us that the atom smasher model’s creator drew “inspiration from photographs, archival records, and memories of community members” to prepare the design files “for a 3-D printer to produce a liquid resin replica of the generator’s signature pear shape.” So while it obviously isn’t preserving the actual atom smasher, the model is going a long way to helping a new generation see it, and ask “what is that thing?!” Imaginations captured, and the story of an artifact or place carried forward— that ultimately is the whole point.

Meanwhile, I checked in on the real thing on December 29, 2016. As of January 20, it has been TWO years since the “developer” knocked over the atom smasher while promising to “save” it, but it still languishes exactly where it was left. We saw that two utility poles had been knocked down at the west end of the property, and their wires downed with them, along with several large branches from a few of the trees near the old back gate, and yellow caution tape around the area. It all gave the sad impression that the place has become more shabby and unkempt in the last few months than it had over many years before that.

We’ll continue to hope for a better future for the atom smasher, while enjoying all the new attention it’s gotten from its debut in the Miniature Railroad!