Winter 2016

Reconstructing Pittsburgh’s Atomic Past

A symbol of Pittsburgh’s industrial innovation, Westinghouse’s storied “atom smasher” is the latest landmark to rise again in Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad & Village®

By Barbara Klein

It once stood tall—five stories tall, in fact. When the Westinghouse Electric Company’s “atom smasher” first took up residence in Forest Hills, just east of Pittsburgh, in the summer of 1937, the silver light-bulb-shaped structure was seen as a beacon of progress.  A true reflection of humankind’s boundless quest for knowledge.

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Photo: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

In development two years before nuclear fission—the ability to split the atom to generate power—was discovered, the 5-million-volt Van de Graaff nuclear accelerator, then the largest of its type, was a pioneering laboratory for one of the world’s first large-scale nuclear physics research programs. It was a cousin to Van de Graaff generators, those shiny silver balls that make kids’ hair stand on end, and
it gave Westinghouse scientists the power to shoot a beam of high-energy particles at a speed of 50 million miles per hour at target atoms and observe the results. Research performed there led to the photo-fission of uranium, an important step in the process of generating nuclear power.

Surprising work, perhaps, in 1930s Pittsburgh. But according to Anne Madarasz
of the Senator John Heinz History Center, which houses Westinghouse’s archives, the flashy piece of history-making equipment was emblematic of Westinghouse’s core belief. “The company never stopped thinking about the future,” the History Center’s chief historian asserts, “even in the midst of the Great Depression.”

As the story goes, Westinghouse executives entered the field of nuclear physics with high hopes that it would generate promising new research, attract scientific talent, and improve its public image on the heels of Depression-era furloughs. But the future long ago left the last remaining relic of Westinghouse Research Laboratories behind. Despite its many claims to fame, the atom smasher has been sitting idle not far from Ardmore Boulevard for nearly 60 years.

“It really is a singular artifact that represents the origin of everything Westinghouse went on to do in nuclear power.” 
  - Marni Blake Walter, an archaeologist specializing in historical and cultural resource management

Last winter, P&L Investments LLC, the current owner of the 11-acre site where the atom smasher and former research center once stood, began clearing the way for new construction. In a move that surprised and angered its neighbors, despite promises to restore the vestige, it was toppled and left unceremoniously languishing on its side. Where, at least for the moment, it remains.

While in the real world the atom smasher’s fate remains decidedly uncertain, inside Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad & Village® it has once again found its footing.

In November, the piece of Pittsburgh’s atomic past joined other retired regional landmarks to be immortalized in miniature, including the original Allegheny Observatory, Forbes Field, Klavon’s Pharmacy, the Sharon Steel Mill, and the Crawford Grill.

As far as Patty Everly is concerned, the timing could not be better. “The atom smasher has been in the news lately,” says Everly, the Science Center’s curator of historic exhibits, “and no one knows if we’ll ever see it standing again.”

A big part of Everly’s job involves painstakingly creating scale models of the historically, architecturally, or culturally significant sites that make up the Miniature Railroad & Village, which originated in 1920. Its animated scenes stretch back even further, illustrating how people in our region lived, worked, and played up to 1940.

The addition of the atom smasher—a major feat of electric engineering—is a no-brainer. “It’s an iconic symbol of Pittsburgh’s industrial past,” says Everly.

Drawing inspiration from photographs, archival records, and memories of community members, Everly prepared the graphic design files necessary for a 3-D printer to produce a liquid resin replica of the generator’s signature pear shape. Even though Paul Rand’s famous Westinghouse “W” logo wasn’t added to the side of the towering  laboratory until after its prime, it’s included on the Science Center’s replica along with the buff-brick building that once surrounded it.

“I grew up within a half-mile of the atom smasher,” says Marni Blake Walter, an archaeologist specializing in historical and cultural resource management. “It was a fixture in my life.”

Walter’s grandparents worked at Westinghouse, and her dad attended the company’s technical night school and became an engineer. Although the 45-year-old Walter and her family settled in the Boston area, her mother and aunt still live in Forest Hills.

“I remember after I went to college and I would bring friends home to visit,” she says, “they would always ask, ‘What is that?’ And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I guess this is pretty unique.”
 
Today, people might think of the artifact as   a quirky roadside attraction, but in the 1930s, Madarasz says, “it was incredibly futuristic and modern looking.”

Despite being nestled among residential homes, the atom smasher didn’t inspire fear but rather a sense of pride. That’s largely because its neighbors knew and trusted Westinghouse, the company that brought electric lights, radio, and televisions into their homes. It was also Westinghouse that essentially built Forest Hills and neighboring Chalfant and East Pittsburgh. Forest Hills, specifically, was a planned community, a company town whose residents were dependent on the industrial behemoth to make a living and support their families. So when L.W. Chubb, the research facility’s director, opted to green light the atom smasher project, the announcement was met with enthusiasm and unbridled optimism. As part of a media blitz promoting its innovation, Westinghouse hosted community days and invited residents and press to visit the site.

On July 7, 1937, the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph practically gushed, “The world’s first atom-smashing ‘cannon’ is nearing completion in East Pittsburgh. The huge apparatus, resembling a stratosphere balloon, will be used for an inconceivable possibly epic-making venture into the infinities of pure research.”

Life magazine published its own four-page spread, heralding, “Mightiest atom smasher at East Pittsburgh, PA: Biggest machine for investigating the smallest particles of matter is this 65-ft. atom smasher.”

But in just a few years, everything changed. Entering World War II, the U.S. government sought to consolidate nuclear research around the top-secret Manhattan Project. Westinghouse shut down the atom smasher and shifted its focus to defense, developing some of the earliest jet engine prototypes, microwave technology for radar, and gyroscopic controls for military tanks.

After the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the public view of nuclear power changed. The atom smasher did make a short-lived comeback, but by 1958 it was officially retired. Westinghouse’s contributions to nuclear research have been far more long lasting. The company was instrumental in developing the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, and the first commercial nuclear power station in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. Today, nearly half of all commercial nuclear power plants in operation were either built or designed by Westinghouse engineers.

Despite receiving various accolades, including being designated historically significant by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundations in 2000, the atom smasher has no legal standing.

“My belief is that the atom smasher should be repaired and put back in its original place—not as an impediment to progress, but as an integral, valuable part of the future,” Walter writes in her atomic heritage-inspired blog, Atomic Confluence.

“It really is a singular artifact that represents the origin of everything Westinghouse went on to do in nuclear power.”

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Also in this issue:

Head-to-toe Science  ·  Art as an Equalizer  ·  Earth in the Age of Humans  ·  Strength in Numbers  ·  President's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Jeffrey Inscho  ·  Science & Nature: Lion Attacking a Dromedary  ·  Artistic License: New Voices of Appalachia  ·  Travel Log  ·  The Big Picture