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!

 

 

Before / After: Atom Smasher Photos

Westinghouse atom smasher, August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Westinghouse atom smasher, 2013. © MB Walter.

Noting the upcoming anniversary of the day the Westinghouse atom smasher was torn down (20 January 2015), below are links to two sets of photos I’ve taken, before and after.

Photos Before / August 2013: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjJRMBMd

Back in August 2013, I had the great fortune to tour the atom smasher up close with Mr. Barry Cassidy (who at the time was managing what we thought would be an exciting preservation/reuse project) and others in preservation and education. There was a lot of enthusiasm for all the possibilities in STEM education, and community and science history, that the atom smasher could offer, and admiration for this offbeat landmark. (And yes for its being a really cool relic to have in your neighborhood… How many people can say they have an ancient atom smasher in their town?!*)

Photos After / April and July 2015: https://flic.kr/s/aHskpXWkvW

Despite all that enthusiasm, we are faced with a different reality since 2015. During 2015 I took a few sets of updated photos in the process or aftermath of site demolition. As a neighbor who saw me there said, better get all the photos you can now…

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

Westinghouse atom smasher detail, 2015. © MB Walter.

I like to document change and record the artifacts around us, so I check on the site whenever I get the chance. Obviously change over the last two years has been dramatic here. I hope readers will find these views of current conditions useful.

For anyone not familiar with Westinghouse in Forest Hills, the photos show what remains of the atom smasher—the very origin of Westinghouse Nuclear—and the pioneering Westinghouse Research Laboratories.

* Ps. If you happen to be someone who does live near another old atom smasher, please leave a comment— we’d love to hear from you too!

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

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