Backstory

***Update to the Backstory, January 2017***

The atom smasher needs your help

I posted the following update in January (click to see original post):

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!

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Industrial Heritage in Crisis: The Westinghouse Atom Smasher

A view of the Westinghouse atom smasher site, April 2009. © Marni Blake Walter.

A view of the Westinghouse atom smasher site, April 2009. © Marni Blake Walter.

The Westinghouse atom smasher is a popular historic engineering landmark dating to the earliest days of nuclear research (ca. 1937–1958). It is now in a crisis situation. Amid high hopes that this iconic landmark would be reused in a new science educational facility, the current owner tore it down in January 2015. Stunned community members spoke out in the news and in social media groups. But the atom smasher’s fate rests entirely in the hands of a private owner.

Rubble and a dismantled atom smasher; this is what remains of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories as of April 2015. Photo © Marni Blake Walter.

Rubble and a dismantled atom smasher; this is what remains of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories as of April 2015. Photo © Marni Blake Walter.

Although the owner stated in the Post-Gazette that he intends to repair and restore it to its upright position (and at least $200,000 will be needed for the repairs: WTAE, Feb. 10, 2015), he’s been silent about it ever since. Many of us are very skeptical. The atom smasher remains in limbo, left on the ground where it landed that day.

Update, January 2017 (see top of this page): There is now a more recent idea to move the atom smasher to the property of the new Forest Hills Municipal Building.


The birthplace of diverse 20th-century innovations

A view of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Forest Hills, PA, shortly after the 1937 construction of the atom smasher (at left). Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

A view of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Forest Hills, PA, shortly after the 1937 construction of the atom smasher (at left). Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.

The atom smasher is the last thing left to symbolize decades of pioneering engineering work at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. Back in 1916, the Westinghouse Electric Company created this facility to give its research department a separate place from the main manufacturing plant in East Pittsburgh. As it grew it included a variety of research departments including metallurgy, magnetics, physics, mechanics, and others. The work of these scientists had far-reaching effects, in World War II and in our daily lives.

Westinghouse decided in 1936 to invest in nuclear physics research. The company constructed this 5-story Van de Graaff particle accelerator in 1937.

In 1940 the scientists working on the atom smasher in Forest Hills furthered the understanding of nuclear fission with their discovery of photo-fission (the splitting of atoms with gamma rays rather than particles).

By the 1950s, the nuclear research program that had begun with the atom smasher had evolved into larger-scale work: power generation for the Nautilus submarine at the Bettis plant in West Mifflin, and later for the first commercial nuclear power station, at Shippingport, PA. For more about nuclear power work at Forest Hills, and some of the important innovations in other departments, see this interesting firsthand description.

The atom smasher’s nuclear physics research was suspended during WWII. It went back into use in the late 1940s and 1950s, until the atom smasher was permanently shut down in 1958.

The IEEE designated the Westinghouse atom smasher as an Electrical Engineering Milestone in 1985.

In 1987 Westinghouse completely closed up the site of the former Research Labs, laying off all remaining employees. The property has been vacant since then. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dated February 13, 2015, Forest Hills Councilman Steve Karas mentions several attempts by the borough to work with the property owners.

Some of the older buildings were demolished in 2004, but several industrial buildings along with the atom smasher and its lab building were spared.

A Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was dedicated on site in August 2010.

Pennsylvania State Historical marker for the atom smasher, dedicated 2010. The building in the background is the former community building/cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

Pennsylvania State Historical marker for the atom smasher, dedicated 2010. The building in the background is the former community building/cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

In 2013 a Washington D.C. based developer bought the property. Demolition of the remaining buildings began in December 2014.

Westinghouse atom smasher, July 2015. © Marni Blake Walter.

Westinghouse atom smasher, July 2015. © Marni Blake Walter.


Links to recent news:

First reports after the tear-down: WTAE news, “Pittsburgh’s old Westinghouse atom smasher knocked down

A follow-up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 21, 2015: “Atom smasher in Forest Hills torn down; restoration promised

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 25, 2015: opinion piece by Brian O’Neill, “With Forest Hills atom smasher’s fall, part of history tumbles

An earlier article (2013) about hopes for reusing the atom smasher for science education

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