Seeking the Mysteries of the Universe, Then and Now

With the most powerful modern-day atom smasher making headlines lately (“Giant Atom Smasher Revs Up,” “World’s Largest Atom Smasher Returns“), here’s a glimpse of the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) together with its primitive ancestry.

"Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research... (CERN) with all the Magnets and Instruments." By Julian Herzog (website) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research… (CERN) with all the Magnets and Instruments.” By Julian Herzog (website) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of the Westinghouse atom smasher (built 1937), August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Interior of the Westinghouse atom smasher (built 1937), August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

In 1937, as construction of the Westinghouse atom smasher was nearing completion, an article in Life magazine (August 30, 1937) proclaimed “Mightiest atom smasher at East Pittsburgh, PA: Biggest machine for investigating the smallest particles of matter is this 65-ft. atom smasher.” This machine generated 5 million volts, which accelerated particles from the top of the pressure tank to a target 47 ft. below. A cloud chamber and other analyzing equipment was located below the tank in the first floor of the lab building.

The target end of the Westinghouse atom smasher, ca. 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

The target end of the Westinghouse atom smasher, ca. 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

In comparison, the CERN LHC is now the largest particle accelerator in the world: a 17-mile-long underground ring of superconducting magnets, near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists are ramping up the machine’s beam energy to 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) (approaching the speed of light). The CERN Control Centre operates the entire complex of accelerators and their infrastructure. For an interesting view of the facility, see this “designer’s tour” of the LHC.

The technological advancements over less than 80 years are mind-boggling. To some of us non-physicists, so are the experiments conducted, both then and now.

The Westinghouse atom smasher shortly after construction in 1937. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

The Westinghouse atom smasher shortly after construction in 1937. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

In the late 1930s, before Westinghouse set upon its course of developing nuclear power plants, the scientists first set out to explore the unknown. In 1936 the Daily Journal of Commerce (Portland, OR) reported, “The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company has set out to do a job that has baffled scientists for nearly a century—the job of disintegrating the atom in hope of solving much of the mystery surrounding the structure of matter.” The article added, “The ultimate success of the experiment cannot be foreseen, … and it is not possible to predict what practical applications may result.” In 1940 the scientists demonstrated experiments “as amazing as the pseudo-scientific feats of Wellsian fantasy” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 30, 1940).

Today, CERN’s “About” webpage reads “What is the universe made of? How did it start? Physicists at CERN are seeking answers, using some of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators.” They are “probing the fundamental structure of the universe.” Current news talks about the search for dark matter, a fifth dimension, supersymmetry, antimatter, and the conditions of the Big Bang. Seems that, no matter what the decade, we are always on the brink of science fiction.

—By Marni Blake Walter

The Echoes from Westinghouse at Forest Hills / Forest Hills Nuclear History

By Maury Fey and Walt Dollard

The buildings are gone now, and the giant Atom Smasher is lying on its side in a pile of rubble. That once proud symbol of Westinghouse innovation stood above the Ardmore Boulevard in Forest Hills for 75 years to mark the spot where much of our twentieth century was invented.

Westinghouse Research Laboratories, late 1930s-1940s.

Westinghouse Research Laboratories, late 1930s-1940s.

The Westinghouse Research Laboratories, “the Lab” to those of us who worked there, was started in 1916. The innovators there developed the materials and engineering technology to expand the generation of electricity, its transmission and its use in to every home and factory in America. They also developed some of the technical products that held high the shield of freedom protecting us from the axis powers in World War II. Let’s meet a few of them.

Vladimir Zworykin escaped the Russian revolution for the United States in 1918. He came to the Lab in about 1920 to work on, and patent the forerunner to modern day television. Lewis Chubb, an extremely gifted engineer who became Research Director in 1930, developed over 120 patents in the fields of radio, precision electronics, electrochemistry and high temperature materials. He recognized that if Westinghouse were to grow, new fields of science, particularly in physics would need to be added. Nuclear physics came first. The Van de Graff Generator, a five million volt pressurized particle accelerator, was built in 1937 to study nuclear reactions. It was termed the Atom Smasher, a name that has stuck to this day. Dr. Edward Condon built a gifted team of scientists for the nuclear work, including Dr. Bill Shoupp, who later became one of the leaders in the Nuclear Submarine program at Bettis. That work led to America’s Nuclear Navy and later, to the Commercial Nuclear Reactor for power generation.

Beginning in World War II, Dr. John Coltman’ s research in Microwave technology provided needed advances in radar systems, and led to the microwave ovens in today’s homes. In addition, Dr. Coltman developed the image amplifier, used in night vision systems, and which led to a revolution in medical imaging technology. At the onset of World War II, Dr. Stewart Way proposed a novel jet engine design that has revolutionized the world’s aircraft. Way’s innovation was sleeker and delivered much better performance than other designs, allowing planes to fly much faster and higher, and thus it has been universally adopted and is the basis for all jet engines in use today. Early battle tanks had a serious problem as they had to stop to fire, since the motion of the tank prevented accuracy. Engineer Clint Hanna designed a sighting system using gyroscopes to stabilize the guns so that American tanks could fire on the run, even over rough terrain. That innovation saved many a tanker’s life in combat. Westinghouse innovations outgrew the site and the Corporation relocated its Research Laboratories to a greatly expanded facility in Churchill Borough in 1956, but those innovations and many others still echo through the site.

The facility became the Commercial Atomic Power Activity (CAPA) in 1957, building upon the Navy’s concept of using nuclear energy to produce steam and generate power. The site was to see the birth and expansion of the Nuclear Power Business for the Electric Utility Industry and it witnessed a new generation of innovators and a renewed burst of innovations. A talented group of engineers including Harvey Graves, Frank Frisch, Harry Andrews and others masterfully spearheaded the breakthrough Power Reactor development effort at CAPA. Marketing Director Carroll Roseberry focused the initiative on power companies anxious to harness the power of the atom for the production of electricity. The development work moved quickly; several configurations were evaluated and the pressurized water reactor system was selected. Following the successful testing of the myriad components in its test loops and small reactor systems the team provided a 160,000 kilowatt generator at Yankee Electric in New England. It operated successfully for many years.

The Westinghouse Atomic Power Division was established at the site and Bob Wells was named as its first General Manager. By the early 1960’s, orders came in to the site for progressively larger systems as America’s demand for electricity doubled every ten years. By 1966, orders were flowing in at the rate of about one a month, and Joe Rengel was selected to lead the expansion of Westinghouse Nuclear Operations. The Advanced Reactors Division was created under John C.R. Kelly and moved to the Westinghouse Waltz Mill site. The Nuclear Fuels Division under Don Povejsil was created to design, manufacture and sell nuclear fuel. The Pressurized Water Reactors Division was established with Ted Stern as General Manager to lead the effort to design, manufacture and sell Nuclear Generation Systems to electric utilities. By 1970, the business had outgrown the little site on Ardmore Boulevard and moved into much larger quarters in Monroeville. During the past half century, the nuclear innovations at Forest Hills have continuously produced more than 10 per cent of the total electric power in the United States, and as much as 80 per cent in France. Large fractions are also produced in Japan, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, South Korea and Taiwan. Westinghouse became the world’s leader in electric power, a position it holds today.

Over much of the twentieth century, the site on the bluff in Forest Hills witnessed many innovations that influence our America’s defense, the nation’s increasing thirst for electricity, and the items we use every day. For the past seventy-five years, the symbol of that culture of innovation was that large Van de Graff generator – the Atom Smasher, and the faded echoes of the multitude of gifted innovators who created so much of the world we live in.

 

Forest Hills Nuclear History

The commercial nuclear history at Forest Hills began in 1956 when Westinghouse began moving in the Commercial Atomic Power Activity, CAPA, onto the site. At the time this was a very small activity of a few dozen people led by Carroll Roseberry, a seasoned marketing executive. Things moved quickly. By the time I came to Westinghouse in November 1957 several major projects were being designed. They were the Westinghouse Test Reactor (WTR), the Yankee Electric Reactor (Yankee), the Belgian Thermal Reactor (BR-3), and the Pennsylvania Advanced Reactor (PAR). The WTR was a small materials and fuel test reactor that was built and operated at Waltz Mills, PA for several years until a fuel leak occurred eventually leading to its shutdown and dismantlement. Yankee was a 160 megawatt (electric) pressurized water reactor which operated for many years in Massachusetts and was a huge success. The BR-3 was a small 11.5 mwe reactor which operated successfully in Belgium. The PAR was an advanced D2O moderated homogeneous reactor project that was dropped in 1959 as commercially uneconomic. By then the operation had been renamed the Westinghouse Atomic Power Department and Robert Wells became General Manager.

All of these reactors were designed at Forest Hills. In addition, the fuel for the Yankee and BR-3 reactors was manufactured in the high bay building there. The PAR Project needed to do a great deal of high pressure loop testing and a long term legacy of this failed project were some excellent test loops that were used for years to test pressurized reactor concepts.

In 1959 Westinghouse secured an order for the Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor (CVTR) for a prototype heavy water reactor from a group of southeastern electric utilities with some Atomic Energy Commission design funding. The CVTR was built and operated successfully but could not compete economically with the pressurized water reactor and no others were built.

In about 1960 Westinghouse got an order from General Public Utilities to build a small 5 mwe demonstration and test reactor to be built in Saxton, PA. This reactor was built and operating in three years. At the same time Westinghouse received orders for 240 mwe reactors for both Italy and France, as well as a 450 mwe reactor to go to California and a 630 mwe reactor to go to Connecticut. All of these projects were designed at Forest Hills and were successfully completed.

About this time Woodrow (Woody) Johnson was made General Manager. Obviously we were growing rapidly. After leading us for several years Woody was transferred to run the Astronuclear Laboratory after Sid Krasic contracted incurable cancer which soon after killed him. Joe Rengel replaced Woody which was about in 1964.

After several years with only one sale (in Spain) things really started to pick up in late 1965. For a while we were almost getting one order each month and we were outgrowing Forest Hills. In May 1966 a big announcement was made. WAPD was split into three divisions. The Advanced Reactors Division was created under John C.R. Kelly Jr. and quickly moved to Waltz Mills giving a little breathing room. The Pressurized Water Systems Division WRSD under Ted Stern was made the lead nuclear division for pwr sales, plant design and projects. The Nuclear Fuel Division under Don Povejsil was created to design, manufacture, and sell the nuclear fuel. Since the early 1960’s the nuclear fuel was made in Cheswick. All of these divisions continued to report to Joe Rengel who was made a corporate vice president and moved to Gateway. The growth of the divisions still at Forest Hills was unstoppable and overwhelmed the site. First large chunks of people were moved to Penn Center in Wilkins Township and in 1970 almost everyone else was moved to the newly constructed Nuclear Center in Monroeville. Only the laboratory functions, the loops, and the machine shop remained in Forest Hills. I believe that Arnold Kitzes remained behind to manage the site. The site continued to be used by the nuclear divisions for another 15 years but in an increasingly diminished role.


Walter Dollard worked at Forest Hills as Marketing Manager of the Nuclear Fuel Division. After the move to the Nuclear Center he became General manager of the Nuclear Fuel Division.

Maury Fey began work at the Forest Hills site from 1953 to 1956, as a young Laboratory Assistant to Dr. Stewart Way, the inventor of the modern Jet Engine. He retired forty years later as Special Projects Manager in the Distribution and Control Business Unit. Currently he serves as President of the Westinghouse SURE Retiree Association.

Part of the text above appeared in an online newsletter. Many thanks to the authors for their firsthand accounts of Westinghouse in Forest Hills.

Another Side of the Atomic Story

Pamphlet from the 2010 PA Historical Marker dedication. Photo © Marni Blake Walter.

Pamphlet from the 2010 PA Historical Marker dedication. Photo © MB Walter.

“The Westinghouse atom smasher was not intended to make a bomb, but to seek out the secrets of nuclear energy as a source of practical power,” so reads the pamphlet from the atom smasher’s 2010 Pennsylvania State Historical Marker dedication. This is something I remember hearing or learning from others in Forest Hills; in my memory it is told with a touch of pride, or maybe a hint of relief. In any case it is an important point about the atom smasher that sets it apart from many other atomic heritage sites.

As the site of Westinghouse’s earliest research in nuclear physics, the atom smasher is at the beginning of a lineage that later includes the first nuclear powered Naval submarine, the Nautilus, and the first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, PA. This program’s focus was to gain an understanding of atomic science especially for the purpose of commercial (profitable) applications. The Westinghouse of today continues to be a major player in the nuclear power industry.

"Birth of the nuclear age": detail from a model Westinghouse atomic power plant, 1959, on display at the Heinz History Center.

“Birth of the nuclear age”: detail from a model Westinghouse atomic power plant, 1959, on display at the Heinz History Center.

But it is the story of the atomic bomb that dominates our collective views of atomic heritage. Several major sites of the Manhattan Project will soon be part of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. (President Obama signed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act into law December 19, 2014, thus authorizing the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.) The National Park Service unit will include historic resources at three major sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington. Some have criticized the park concept, saying it glorifies the atomic bomb and could be insensitive to the many who suffered as a result of it. This is not the intent of the park; instead, it will provide opportunities to explore the many complex issues surrounding Manhattan Project history. However, it does focus on bomb-making history, to the indifference of other aspects of our nuclear heritage.

Similarly, a recent National Geographic article, “8 Places That Showcase Atomic Age Archaeology for Tourists,” in fact showcases our collective fascination with the bomb. Of all eight places on the list, only one of them—the Nevada Test Site—in part addresses nuclear uses other than weaponry. It makes me wonder, if the atom smasher had made some major contribution to the Manhattan Project, would it be in the condition it’s in today? Or would it be a popular tourist site, preserved, lauded for its contributions to Cold War angst?

Take the comparison of the fates of two historically significant reactors. The B Reactor at Hanford was the first full-scale nuclear reactor. It produced the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki in August 1945. Today, public tours are offered of the facility, and it is now a “signature facility” of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. With that, its preservation and presentation to the public are ensured.

Meanwhile, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station (completed 1957) was the first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant in the country. It was also important as a testing and training facility. As a cornerstone of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, it successfully produced electricity for the Pittsburgh area until 1982. The facility was designated as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1980. It was dismantled beginning in 1985. Maybe the best testament to Shippingport’s lasting impact is that a new nuclear power plant currently operates at the same location.

The creation and wartime detonation of the first atomic bomb is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. It is important to address the vast legacy of the Manhattan Project in all its complexity, and the national park will be a major part of that effort. But along with the making of the atomic bomb, might we also want future generations to know how we strove to use that knowledge for developing sustainable energy sources and other innovations for the benefit of humankind? The Westinghouse atom smasher could serve to tell another part of the atomic story. We should take a wider look around at what we want to pass on to future generations, before it is too late.

 

The Westinghouse atom smasher after site demolition, February 27, 2015. © Randall Walter.

The Westinghouse atom smasher after site demolition, February 27, 2015. © Randall Walter.

—By Marni Blake Walter

The Atom Smasher In Our Backyard

Welcome to this new blog about the Westinghouse atom smasher and industrial heritage!

As a little kid, I knew we were almost home when I’d see the “giant light bulb thing” pass by out the car window. And sure enough, the next moment we’d pull into our garage. I didn’t know what the thing was, and I vaguely wondered why someone would build a giant light bulb down the street from us. To me, it had always just been there. This was ages before I had any idea what an atom smasher was, or what a “sense of place” meant. But I began to know that it was something significant, and unique.

Almost home. August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Almost home. August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Eventually I learned that the light bulb thing was an atom smasher. Later I became curious as to why they would build an atom smasher right smack in a residential neighborhood. But still, for someone growing up in Forest Hills it was just a normal part of the view. (Today, I’m fascinated by the very different attitude than our modern culture: not only was such a machine allowed to be built here, but it seems like it was met largely with excitement and curiosity. I would love to know, what were the scientists, and the onlookers and neighbors, really thinking?).

To Westinghouse researchers and nuclear physicists around the world, this odd structure was the first commercially owned Van de Graaff particle accelerator. The Westinghouse Electric Company added it to the already productive Research Laboratories facilities in 1937. Since 1916 these labs had advanced technology in mechanics, magnetics, chemistry, metallurgy, radar, and other fields. Built before the discovery of nuclear fission, the atom smasher was the company’s first venture into fundamental research on the atom, and the origin of Westinghouse’s ongoing involvement in nuclear power. Many significant discoveries and inventions were produced throughout all the departments at this site (for more details, see this firsthand description).

A view into Forest Hills from the landing on the atom smasher's ladder, August 2013. The building on the right is the former cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

A view into Forest Hills from the landing on the atom smasher’s ladder, August 2013. The building on the right is the former cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

To my grandparents and hundreds of others in Forest Hills, Chalfant, and East Pittsburgh, Westinghouse was a major employer and a major contributor to the surrounding communities. With several hundred employees working there at its peak, this site was a melting pot, bringing together everyone from blue-collar workers to eminent scientists. My grandma worked in the cafeteria, and I can still imagine her talking with her friends from the cafeteria in their own half-English, half-Ukrainian language. The knowledge of nuclear power is still with us, but the knowledge of what it might’ve been like to be an immigrant from the Old Country working in the shadow of some of the most high-tech discoveries of the day is already nearly lost to us.

As technology has a way of quickly outgrowing its roots, this atom smasher was shut down in 1958. As early as the 1960s, speculation began about when it might face the wrecking ball. Yet it stood, and for decades evaded threats to its existence: too large to move; too costly to dismantle. Until several weeks ago. The atom smasher structure is the very last remaining vestige of all that transpired at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, but today it is in an extremely vulnerable and threatened condition.

Many of us from Forest Hills and Chalfant were stunned and dismayed when on January 20, 2015, the atom smasher, having stood steadfastly for nearly 80 years, was torn down. My mom was the first resident on the scene that day. While we were still under the impression that the atom smasher would be kept in place, she sent this photo to me as she walked down the street to visit the site:

Any Forest Hills or Chalfant native would see at a glance that something is terribly wrong here! January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Any Forest Hills or Chalfant native would see at a glance that something is terribly wrong here! January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Now the atom smasher sits in a heap, forlornly trying to conjure a bygone era of exploration and optimism. (Post-apocalyptic filmmakers take note! In some circular irony, this image could easily be that “girt big rottin iron thing” in one of the early scenes of Riddley Walker— or the opening scene of your next end-of-the-world blockbuster! At the very least, it should’ve appeared in an episode of the X-Files.)

The Westinghouse atom smasher, shortly after it was torn down, January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

The Westinghouse atom smasher, shortly after it was torn down, January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Almost immediately after tearing down the atom smasher, the property owner/developer stated in news reports that he intended to repair the structure and put it back in place. For the last year or so prior to the dismantling, we were told that a project was in the works in which the Woodland Hills School District would reuse the atom smasher as part of a STEM program for the high school. It’s no surprise that WHSD could not foot the bill, but the seemingly abrupt change of direction created a lot of skepticism, I think. And I’m not alone in wondering, why would you treat a unique historic resource in this way if you intended to save it?

I hope that the promised repairs will happen, and that redevelopment of the site will use this opportunity to build on and learn from past people and their industries. The former Westinghouse Electric Company’s presence in Forest Hills is a major part of the area’s history. As long as the atom smasher still sits there on its pile of rubble, I believe that it should be repaired and put back in its original place—not as an impediment to progress, but as an integral, valuable part of the future.

—By Marni Blake Walter