Westinghouse Atom Smasher Historical Marker Dedication (2010)

By Edward J. Reis

PA State Historical Marker for the Westinghouse atom smasher, dedicated August 2010. Photo © Edward J. Reis.

PA State Historical Marker for the Westinghouse atom smasher, dedicated August 2010. Photo © Edward J. Reis.

A “Westinghouse Atom Smasher” Pennsylvania roadside historical marker was recently installed at the site of the 1930s Westinghouse Research Laboratories located in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. The dedication and unveiling ceremony was held on August 28, 2010 with the “Westinghouse Atom Smasher” building standing in the background during the ceremony.

The “Atom Smasher,” as it was commonly called, was designed to create nuclear reactions by bombarding target atoms with a beam of high-energy particles. Capable of accelerating subatomic particles through a vacuum tube at 100 million miles per hour using a controlled 5 million volts, it permitted very precise measurements of the resulting nuclear collisions. 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.

Ed Reis, the Westinghouse Historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center, had submitted the nomination to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission for this historical marker and it was approved back in 2009. The Westinghouse Electric Company funded the manufacture of the historical marker and the dedication ceremony.

This rather unique, pear-shaped building from 1937 certainly is an early historical artifact from the very beginning of Westinghouse’s ongoing involvement in the nuclear power industry.

Edward J. Reis is the Westinghouse Historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center. From 1998 through 2007 he was the Executive Director of the George Westinghouse Museum.

Many thanks to Mr. Reis for this contribution from the 2010 dedication of the Pennsylvania State Historical Marker. Thanks also for his work in nominating the atom smasher for this honor!

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

The Echoes from Westinghouse at Forest Hills / Forest Hills Nuclear History

By Maury Fey and Walt Dollard

The buildings are gone now, and the giant Atom Smasher is lying on its side in a pile of rubble. That once proud symbol of Westinghouse innovation stood above the Ardmore Boulevard in Forest Hills for 75 years to mark the spot where much of our twentieth century was invented.

Westinghouse Research Laboratories, late 1930s-1940s.

Westinghouse Research Laboratories, late 1930s-1940s.

The Westinghouse Research Laboratories, “the Lab” to those of us who worked there, was started in 1916. The innovators there developed the materials and engineering technology to expand the generation of electricity, its transmission and its use in to every home and factory in America. They also developed some of the technical products that held high the shield of freedom protecting us from the axis powers in World War II. Let’s meet a few of them.

Vladimir Zworykin escaped the Russian revolution for the United States in 1918. He came to the Lab in about 1920 to work on, and patent the forerunner to modern day television. Lewis Chubb, an extremely gifted engineer who became Research Director in 1930, developed over 120 patents in the fields of radio, precision electronics, electrochemistry and high temperature materials. He recognized that if Westinghouse were to grow, new fields of science, particularly in physics would need to be added. Nuclear physics came first. The Van de Graff Generator, a five million volt pressurized particle accelerator, was built in 1937 to study nuclear reactions. It was termed the Atom Smasher, a name that has stuck to this day. Dr. Edward Condon built a gifted team of scientists for the nuclear work, including Dr. Bill Shoupp, who later became one of the leaders in the Nuclear Submarine program at Bettis. That work led to America’s Nuclear Navy and later, to the Commercial Nuclear Reactor for power generation.

Beginning in World War II, Dr. John Coltman’ s research in Microwave technology provided needed advances in radar systems, and led to the microwave ovens in today’s homes. In addition, Dr. Coltman developed the image amplifier, used in night vision systems, and which led to a revolution in medical imaging technology. At the onset of World War II, Dr. Stewart Way proposed a novel jet engine design that has revolutionized the world’s aircraft. Way’s innovation was sleeker and delivered much better performance than other designs, allowing planes to fly much faster and higher, and thus it has been universally adopted and is the basis for all jet engines in use today. Early battle tanks had a serious problem as they had to stop to fire, since the motion of the tank prevented accuracy. Engineer Clint Hanna designed a sighting system using gyroscopes to stabilize the guns so that American tanks could fire on the run, even over rough terrain. That innovation saved many a tanker’s life in combat. Westinghouse innovations outgrew the site and the Corporation relocated its Research Laboratories to a greatly expanded facility in Churchill Borough in 1956, but those innovations and many others still echo through the site.

The facility became the Commercial Atomic Power Activity (CAPA) in 1957, building upon the Navy’s concept of using nuclear energy to produce steam and generate power. The site was to see the birth and expansion of the Nuclear Power Business for the Electric Utility Industry and it witnessed a new generation of innovators and a renewed burst of innovations. A talented group of engineers including Harvey Graves, Frank Frisch, Harry Andrews and others masterfully spearheaded the breakthrough Power Reactor development effort at CAPA. Marketing Director Carroll Roseberry focused the initiative on power companies anxious to harness the power of the atom for the production of electricity. The development work moved quickly; several configurations were evaluated and the pressurized water reactor system was selected. Following the successful testing of the myriad components in its test loops and small reactor systems the team provided a 160,000 kilowatt generator at Yankee Electric in New England. It operated successfully for many years.

The Westinghouse Atomic Power Division was established at the site and Bob Wells was named as its first General Manager. By the early 1960’s, orders came in to the site for progressively larger systems as America’s demand for electricity doubled every ten years. By 1966, orders were flowing in at the rate of about one a month, and Joe Rengel was selected to lead the expansion of Westinghouse Nuclear Operations. The Advanced Reactors Division was created under John C.R. Kelly and moved to the Westinghouse Waltz Mill site. The Nuclear Fuels Division under Don Povejsil was created to design, manufacture and sell nuclear fuel. The Pressurized Water Reactors Division was established with Ted Stern as General Manager to lead the effort to design, manufacture and sell Nuclear Generation Systems to electric utilities. By 1970, the business had outgrown the little site on Ardmore Boulevard and moved into much larger quarters in Monroeville. During the past half century, the nuclear innovations at Forest Hills have continuously produced more than 10 per cent of the total electric power in the United States, and as much as 80 per cent in France. Large fractions are also produced in Japan, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, South Korea and Taiwan. Westinghouse became the world’s leader in electric power, a position it holds today.

Over much of the twentieth century, the site on the bluff in Forest Hills witnessed many innovations that influence our America’s defense, the nation’s increasing thirst for electricity, and the items we use every day. For the past seventy-five years, the symbol of that culture of innovation was that large Van de Graff generator – the Atom Smasher, and the faded echoes of the multitude of gifted innovators who created so much of the world we live in.


Forest Hills Nuclear History

The commercial nuclear history at Forest Hills began in 1956 when Westinghouse began moving in the Commercial Atomic Power Activity, CAPA, onto the site. At the time this was a very small activity of a few dozen people led by Carroll Roseberry, a seasoned marketing executive. Things moved quickly. By the time I came to Westinghouse in November 1957 several major projects were being designed. They were the Westinghouse Test Reactor (WTR), the Yankee Electric Reactor (Yankee), the Belgian Thermal Reactor (BR-3), and the Pennsylvania Advanced Reactor (PAR). The WTR was a small materials and fuel test reactor that was built and operated at Waltz Mills, PA for several years until a fuel leak occurred eventually leading to its shutdown and dismantlement. Yankee was a 160 megawatt (electric) pressurized water reactor which operated for many years in Massachusetts and was a huge success. The BR-3 was a small 11.5 mwe reactor which operated successfully in Belgium. The PAR was an advanced D2O moderated homogeneous reactor project that was dropped in 1959 as commercially uneconomic. By then the operation had been renamed the Westinghouse Atomic Power Department and Robert Wells became General Manager.

All of these reactors were designed at Forest Hills. In addition, the fuel for the Yankee and BR-3 reactors was manufactured in the high bay building there. The PAR Project needed to do a great deal of high pressure loop testing and a long term legacy of this failed project were some excellent test loops that were used for years to test pressurized reactor concepts.

In 1959 Westinghouse secured an order for the Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor (CVTR) for a prototype heavy water reactor from a group of southeastern electric utilities with some Atomic Energy Commission design funding. The CVTR was built and operated successfully but could not compete economically with the pressurized water reactor and no others were built.

In about 1960 Westinghouse got an order from General Public Utilities to build a small 5 mwe demonstration and test reactor to be built in Saxton, PA. This reactor was built and operating in three years. At the same time Westinghouse received orders for 240 mwe reactors for both Italy and France, as well as a 450 mwe reactor to go to California and a 630 mwe reactor to go to Connecticut. All of these projects were designed at Forest Hills and were successfully completed.

About this time Woodrow (Woody) Johnson was made General Manager. Obviously we were growing rapidly. After leading us for several years Woody was transferred to run the Astronuclear Laboratory after Sid Krasic contracted incurable cancer which soon after killed him. Joe Rengel replaced Woody which was about in 1964.

After several years with only one sale (in Spain) things really started to pick up in late 1965. For a while we were almost getting one order each month and we were outgrowing Forest Hills. In May 1966 a big announcement was made. WAPD was split into three divisions. The Advanced Reactors Division was created under John C.R. Kelly Jr. and quickly moved to Waltz Mills giving a little breathing room. The Pressurized Water Systems Division WRSD under Ted Stern was made the lead nuclear division for pwr sales, plant design and projects. The Nuclear Fuel Division under Don Povejsil was created to design, manufacture, and sell the nuclear fuel. Since the early 1960’s the nuclear fuel was made in Cheswick. All of these divisions continued to report to Joe Rengel who was made a corporate vice president and moved to Gateway. The growth of the divisions still at Forest Hills was unstoppable and overwhelmed the site. First large chunks of people were moved to Penn Center in Wilkins Township and in 1970 almost everyone else was moved to the newly constructed Nuclear Center in Monroeville. Only the laboratory functions, the loops, and the machine shop remained in Forest Hills. I believe that Arnold Kitzes remained behind to manage the site. The site continued to be used by the nuclear divisions for another 15 years but in an increasingly diminished role.

Walter Dollard worked at Forest Hills as Marketing Manager of the Nuclear Fuel Division. After the move to the Nuclear Center he became General manager of the Nuclear Fuel Division.

Maury Fey began work at the Forest Hills site from 1953 to 1956, as a young Laboratory Assistant to Dr. Stewart Way, the inventor of the modern Jet Engine. He retired forty years later as Special Projects Manager in the Distribution and Control Business Unit. Currently he serves as President of the Westinghouse SURE Retiree Association.

Part of the text above appeared in an online newsletter. Many thanks to the authors for their firsthand accounts of Westinghouse in Forest Hills.