The Plight of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher

  • Update as of May the 4th! After February’s news, we are now back in touch with the owner, so are trying once again to move forward with getting an agreement in place to save the atom smasher.

Feb. 18, 2021: A potential new owner for the Westinghouse Atom Smasher brings new threats of destruction! We now hear that a potential buyer simply wants to scrap it— distressing news after months of my husband and I negotiating with the current owner of the Westinghouse property to create a mutually beneficial plan for him and the atom smasher!

In June 2020, property owner Gary Silversmith sent out a sort of last-ditch plea for ideas to move the atom smasher so that he could sell the property. I and my husband (an architect/developer with industrial reuse experience) responded with a proposal that would be quick and simple to complete: the owner would provide a small piece of the property, to which we would move the atom smasher, providing all the logistics and fundraising along the way. The atom smasher would have a home, within the same place as the original Westinghouse Research Lab—a much easier move than any other relocation proposals. And the rest of the property could be cleaned up and sold without the atom smasher in the way. Eventually we would hope to create a small historical park (much more modest than the dreamed-about science/ history/ community center, but better than nothing!).

Long story short, after going back and forth many times, each time thinking we had a clear agreement and were ready to talk with the Borough and neighbors and start fundraising, etc., he would change his mind and change the details. Still as recently as January 12, 2021 we thought we had a clear plan. Then just a few days later we heard that a potential buyer plans to scrap it. (So frustrating because we have been ready and able to jump into working on it for months and could have been far along with it already!)

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was an icon of Pittsburgh and Westinghouse innovation. Saving it would maintain the unique history of Forest Hills and Pittsburgh, provide a vivid, significant artifact for history and science education, and keep the sense of place and community that people could enjoy for future generations. Scrapping it just gets one guy his profits a little quicker. What a choice!

FYI: The following was included in the 2019 Forest Hills Comprehensive Plan, p. 14:

“The property on which the Westinghouse Atom Smasher was located has potential for development as a center for information and education about the significance and effect of the basic research on particle physics that took place at the Westinghouse nuclear research facility that housed it. The Borough of Forest Hills will strive to work with the property owner to establish this location as a destination of regional and national interest. Although the atom smasher itself is not eligible for historic restoration because the building on which it was supported was dismantled for remediation of the site, the history of its operation has significant value for the future. The property is currently in private hands.”

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.

Forest Hills Centennial Symposium Oct. 12

Forest Hills, PA is hosting a symposium as part of the borough’s centennial celebrations! I will be there to do a presentation about the atom smasher! Saturday, October 12, 2019, 1-5 pm.

Feature Article on the Westinghouse Atom Smasher in Western PA History

Update! A PDF / online version of this article is available here!

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.