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.
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).
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:
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.)
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.