Centennial Wrap-Up: The Atom Smasher’s Unique Place in History

One year ago, I gave a presentation at the Forest Hills Centennial Symposium on the Westinghouse atom smasher and its place in Forest Hills history. I ended with some points about why the atom smasher is so great (aka a partial statement of significance). There’s no recording of the presentation, but here is a summary of my concluding remarks:

  • The Westinghouse atom smasher is an iconic relic from the very dawn of the atomic age. Very few such machines or artifacts remain.
  • The earliest research here made discoveries that contributed to humankind’s fundamental understanding of nuclear physics, paving the way for all later nuclear developments. (Also, it is all that is left to represent the entire history of the original Westinghouse Research Laboratory, which brought many important inventions to the 20th-century world.)
  • It (and the work done here) is a direct ancestor of some of the first major successes in peaceful nuclear power, like the Shippingport power plant and others.
  • While the Manhattan Project National Park— 3 major sites that contributed to the making of the atomic bomb—was established in 2015, the Forest Hills Research Lab and Atom Smasher are a rare, early example of atomic research for power generation, medical uses, and other peaceful uses. I think it’s really important for people to also know and remember Non-Bomb atomic history. (However, as the atomic bomb was one of the major events of the 20th century, the Forest Hills Lab does have some connections to that work, although it was not a main point of research here.)
  • And, while we’re here considering Forest Hills in the past and future, the atom smasher’s place IN this neighborhood is a telling artifact of a bygone era— I think it’s really meaningful to see it where it is. It shows a completely different mindset, literally on the brink of a new world, that is difficult to imagine today. Seeing it in place gives people a tangible connection to that era.

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!

 

 

Feature Article on the Westinghouse Atom Smasher in Western PA History

 

Check out the Fall 2015 issue of Western Pennsylvania History, the magazine of the Heinz History Center!

W PA History cover

I’m very happy to say that my article, “An Unlikely Atomic Landscape: Forest Hills and the Westinghouse Atom Smasher,” was recently published! AND they used my favorite photo on the cover, which was a fantastic surprise as the issue went into production.

When I started digging into archival atom smasher info, I thought I’d find some news stories about people protesting the construction of this huge thing, of mysterious scientific purpose, in their neighborhood. Instead I found this photo. These people stand in a moment in time so different than today. The image inspired me to think more about the community around the atom smasher and why this place was significant beyond how fast the machine could accelerate particles. Read all about it in the magazine! 

This photo (courtesy Heinz History Center Detre L&A) might be from one of the community day events that Westinghouse often held, but the caption in the archives only gives a date of about 1940. If anyone out there has more info about it, or family memories or stories from this time, I hope to hear from you!


Many thanks to the editors of Western Pennsylvania History, and their designers and printers, who produce this beautiful magazine.

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