Industrial Heritage in Crisis: The Westinghouse Atom Smasher
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.
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.
The birthplace of diverse 20th-century innovations
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.
In 2013 a Washington D.C. based developer bought the property. Demolition of the remaining buildings began in December 2014.
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