The Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Jun 9, 2022 0 comments

For almost 80 years, a huge lightbulb-shaped device stood in Forest Hills on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, United States. Towering 65 feet in the air, the device was the world’s first industrial particle accelerator, and a pioneering laboratory for one of the world’s first large-scale nuclear physics research programs. When it was built in 1937, it was cutting edge technology, capable of shooting high-energy particles at target atoms and allowing scientists to observe the results. Research performed there led to the discovery of photo-fission of uranium and thorium, an important step in the process of generating nuclear power. Today, the complex lies abandoned, and the atom smasher itself lies toppled to the ground.

Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Photo: daveynin/Flickr

The Atom Smasher was part of the old Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which was founded in 1886 as a rival to Thomas Edison’s electric company. The Westinghouse Electric Corporation made turbines, generators, motors, and switch gear for generation, transmission, and use of electricity. They also had divisions on metallurgy, magnetics, physics chemistry and mechanics. In 1935, researchers in the nascent nuclear division convinced the company to build the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

At the time it was completed it was the most powerful accelerator in the world, that was able to energize particles up to five million electron volts. By comparison, today CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can generate electron beams more than a million times more powerful than the Westinghouse Atom Smasher did.

Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Photo: drquuxum/Flickr

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was an electrostatic accelerator, which is basically a large Van de Graaff generator—the electrically charged metal domes that make your hair stand on end when you touch them. In the Westinghouse machine, two high speed belts traveled up a 47-foot shaft to a mushroom-shaped electrode near the top of the bulb-shaped enclosure, where electric charges were accumulated. When enough charge had accumulated at the top, a radioactive filament inside the smasher’s dome released these ions, which then travelled down a 40 feet tall vacuum tube at near the speed of light to crash into experimental targets placed inside the tube, inducing various nuclear reactions.

The most 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. Company officials embarked on this ambitious program in pure research with the faith that practical applications would follow. Ten years later, Westinghouse formed the Department of Electronics and Nuclear Physics, and in 1952, the world’s first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, was launched with a Westinghouse nuclear reactor powering it. Five years after that, the first commercial nuclear power plant opened in Shippingport Pennsylvania, also with a Westinghouse reactor at its heart. By the 1970s, the majority of power plants around the world used Westinghouse designs.

Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The inside of the Atom Smasher. Photo: University of Pittsburg

By the 1950s, cyclotrons had gotten smaller and more powerful and in 1956, Westinghouse decided to build one of its own. Two years later, they shut the Atom Smasher down for good, but the lab itself was continued to be used for many decades after. That too shut down in the 1980s.

In the early 2000s, many of the buildings were demolished and in 2012, the property was bought by a new owner with the intention of building condos. They demolished the remaining buildings and the iconic atom smasher fell to the ground. The developer has promised to preserve the atom smasher by erecting it on a new concrete pedestal and have it repainted. For now, lying on an empty lot between residential homes, the atom smasher remains a quirky roadside attraction.

Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Photo: Shannon O'Toole/Flickr

Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Photo: daveynin/Flickr

# Pittsburgh’s Abandoned Atom Smasher, Physics Central
# Westinghouse "Atom Smasher," 1937, ETHW


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