A Smashing Piece of History in Forest Hills

It looks like an upside-down lightbulb, but this curiosity recalls visionary research by Westinghouse.

Sometimes in our celebrations of 250 years of Pittsburgh history, we forget that this area still holds many surprises. Always the best parts of any project are the unexpected bits of info, the amazing untold stories, the old pictures and movies you didn’t know existed, the building with a gigantic silver bulb that you’d never seen before.

You see, for several months now, I’ve been working on a new video documentary, a TV program we call “Invented, Engineered & Pioneered in Pittsburgh” (premiering April 10 at 8 p.m. on WQED-TV) and in this program, we take a look at a few noteworthy accomplishments of Pittsburgh’s brightest and best scientists and engineers. There have been lots of surprises, from seeing zany high-school competitions at Carnegie Science Center to riding inside a robot on the Hazelwood flood plain.

But you can’t make such a program in these parts without paying tribute to the amazing work done by Mr. George Westinghouse and the people who worked with him on so many projects. And you have to acknowledge the spirit of research and innovation that continued in the Westinghouse companies after the founder’s death in 1914. So we’ve been down to see historian Ed Reis in his new digs at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. And we talked to folks at Westinghouse Nuclear in Monroeville and Waltz Mill. And several people said things like, “You know, I think there’s that old atom smasher out in Forest Hills,” and we had to take a look.

One cold morning, my camera crew and I drove out Ardmore Boulevard, and on the hillside across from Vincent’s Pizza, in a sedate residential neighborhood, we stood outside the fence and gazed at a big silver light bulb of a building with the old Westinghouse “W” on two sides.

This steel structure was built in 1937 as part of Westinghouse’s growing interest in the brand-new field of nuclear physics. Related to Van de Graff generators (those shiny balls that make kids’ hair stand on end at science centers and in high-school labs), this upside-down pear of a building was designed as a 5-million-volt Van de Graff nuclear accelerator, then the world’s largest of its type. It allowed Westinghouse scientists to shoot a beam of high-energy particles (at a speed of 100 million miles per hour!) at target atoms and observe the results. Research done here is said to have led to the photo-fission of uranium, an important step in the process of generating nuclear power. The old accelerator was used for research until the late-1950s.

In 1985, the IEEE, the nonprofit organization that calls itself “the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology,” named the Westinghouse Atom Smasher to its list of Electrical Engineering Milestones, pointing out, “The remarkable aspect of the Atom Smasher’s history is that Westinghouse made the decision to build the generator in 1936, three years before the discovery of nuclear fission opened up the possibilities of nuclear power.”
And surprise! It’s still here. For a while now it’s been for sale along with the surrounding building and 11-acre site, but it’s the kind of odd monument to local ingenuity, engineering and curiosity that makes me love this part of the world.

Categories: Rick Sebak