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The Strange Story of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The giant bulb was an important part of early American nuclear history. Now it’s part of a miniature railroad

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher in its prime. (Senator John Heinz History Center)
smithsonian.com

Van de Graaff generators can be found throughout the country in classrooms and museums. The small orbs full of static electricity are commonly used to demonstrate how electricity works and wow visitors by making their hair stand on end. But as the residents of Forest Hills, Pennsylvania can tell you, they're good for much more than that. 

For almost 80 years, the Westinghouse Atom Smasher was a landmark in Forest Hills, which is now a suburb of Pittsburgh. Towering 65 feet in the air, it was part of a complex operated by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s research facility. “The atom smasher was the centerpiece of the first large-scale program in nuclear physics established in industry,” writes the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

It operated from 1937 until 1958, writes Jill Harkins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as late as 2015—when the atom smasher was knocked over—many residents of Forest Hills still saw the bulb as representative of the atomic age and their own childhood.

But the atom smasher was important outside of Forest Hills as well. It helped to establish Westinghouse’s involvement with the non-weapons applications of nuclear technology. By 1941, Westinghouse was producing pure uranium at the facility, according to the Senator John Heinz History Center. The innovations that took place at the atom smasher went on to make Westinghouse the nuclear power player it still is today:Westinghouse built the generating plant for the first commercial-scale nuclear power facility, which was located in Shippenport, another town in Pennsylvania.

Today we call atom smashers “particle accelerators” or colliders. But it was the 1930s and understanding of nuclear physics was still pretty remedial in the general population. A Popular Science article from July 1937 about the Westinghouse facility declared, “Huge generator to smash atoms,” providing a diagram.

It worked like any of the smaller generators  invented by Robert J. Van de Graaff in 1929: by static electricity. The collider used a fabric belt that rotated very fast, creating friction and up to five million volts of electricity, which was used to speed up particles. These high-energy particles were guided to hit targeted atoms, splitting them (or “smashing” them) to create nuclear energy. In celebration of Van de Graaff's birthday, we're telling you how his invention was used in the Atomic Age. 

“The steady voltage of the generator, its chief advantage over other types of accelerators, allowed the reactions to be measured precisely, thus contributing to basic knowledge of nuclear physics,” writes the IEEE. “Research with the atom smasher in 1940 led to the discovery of the photo-fission of uranium, part of the process involved in the generation of nuclear power.” The Westinghouse Atom Smasher wasn't the only one built using the Van de Graaff design, but it was the first. 

But although the atom smasher occupies an important place in local history and American nuclear history, in 2015 the iconic bulb fell. A Washington developer who had purchased the Westinghouse site in 2012 planned to build apartments on the site, Harkins writes. The developer said that the atom smasher would be placed on a new concrete pedestal and repainted, but as of December 4 a local citizens interest group wrote that the atom smasher wasn’t going anywhere yet. Earlier in the year, Bob Hazen wrote for Pittsburgh’s Action 4 News that the iconic bulb was still lying on its side at the demolition site.

As of this holiday season, though, the Westinghouse Atom Smasher is preserved in Pittsburgh as a model that's part of the Carnegie Science Center miniature railroad.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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