Westinghouse Atom Smasher
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Westinghouse Atom Smasher
Westinghouse Atom Smasher
The Atom Smasher on May 9, 2010, before the 2015 demolition
General information
AddressF Avenue & West
Town or cityForest Hills, Pennsylvania
Coordinates40°24?39?N 79°50?35?W / 40.4108661°N 79.8430295°W / 40.4108661; -79.8430295
DemolishedJanuary 20, 2015
DesignatedAugust 28, 2010

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was a 5 MeV Van de Graaff electrostatic nuclear accelerator operated by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation at their Research Laboratories in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania.[1] It was instrumental in the development in practical applications of nuclear science for energy production.[2][3][4] In particular, it was used in 1940 to discover the photofission of uranium and thorium.[5][6] It was the first industrial Van de Graaff generator in the world,[7] and marked the beginning of nuclear research for civilian applications.[8][9] Built in 1937, it was a 65 feet (20 m) tall pear-shaped tower.[7][10] It went dormant in 1958.[10] In 1985, it was named an Electrical Engineering Milestone by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.[6]

How it worked

Drawing of the machine with part of the tank cut away, showing the belts and high voltage electrode.
A view of the atom smasher in the 1930s or 1940s, when it was operational.

In a Van de Graaff generator, invented in 1929 by Robert J. Van de Graaff, an endless rubber or fabric belt carries electric charges from a roller at the base of the device and deposits them inside a hollow metal electrode at the top. This causes a high voltage to develop between electrodes at the top and bottom of the apparatus.[11]

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 (see cutaway schematic).[12] Various ions, like those generated from hydrogen gas (protons) or helium gas (alpha particles), were injected into the upper part of an accelerator tube. The high electrostatic potential between the top and bottom of the tube then caused these subatomic particles to accelerate to extremely high velocities as they traveled down a 17-inch-diameter evacuated cylinder 40 feet in height, which was a sealed stack of many individual glass segments that collectively composed the largest vacuum tube in the world at the time of construction.[6] The accelerator tube ran between and parallel to the whirling belts to the base of the machine, where the accelerated particles bombarded experimental targets placed inside the tube, inducing various nuclear reactions.[11][13]

The energy of the particles was measured through the gamma rays that the beam produced when its particles hit a fluorine target, which was directly related to the voltage potential between the machine's electrodes.[13]

The maximum voltage that a Van de Graaff generator can produce is limited by leakage of the charge off the upper electrode due to corona discharge and arcing. At atmospheric pressure, a Van de Graaff machine is generally limited to around 1 megavolt. Thus this instrument was installed inside a pear-shaped 65-foot tall, 30-foot diameter air tank which was pressurized during operation to 120 pounds per square inch.[12] High pressure improved the insulating qualities of the air and reduced charge leakage, allowing the machine to achieve a voltage potential of 5 megavolts. This allowed a beam energy of 5 MeV, although it was originally hoped to reach 10 MeV.

Preservation efforts

In 2012, the property surrounding the atom smasher was purchased by P&L Investments, LLC.[1] The company was run by Gary Silversmith, a developer who intended to build apartments and expressed an interest in saving the smasher.[14] In 2013, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh named it as one of the city's top 10 preservation opportunities.[14] During 2013, plans had been discussed of the Woodland Hills School District establishing a STEM educational facility with the atom smasher as the centerpiece, but the $4 to $5 million cost was prohibitive and the project never moved forward.[14]

By 2015, the structure was in significant disrepair and was dislodged from its supports, due to vandalism and age.[14] On January 20, 2015, Silversmith had the atom smasher removed from its supports and laid on its side.[2] Workers laid bricks to brace the fall, and tipped it over.[10] In an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Silversmith pronounced his continuing commitment to refurbishing and restoring the atom smasher, saying "The iconic Atom Smasher bulb survives." [14]

See also


  1. ^ a b Walter, Marni Blake (September 1, 2015). "An Unlikely Atomic Landscape: Forest Hills and the Westinghouse Atom Smasher". Western Pennsylvania History Magazine. Senator John Heinz History Center. 98 (3): 36-49. Retrieved 2019.
  2. ^ a b Klein, Barbara (Winter 2016). "Reconstructing Pittsburgh's Atomic Past". Carnegie Magazine. Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. 83 (4). Retrieved 2019.
  3. ^ "Van de Graaff particle accelerator, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., Pittsburgh, PA, August 7, 1945". Explore PA History. WITF-TV. Retrieved 2015.
  4. ^ "Westinghouse Electric Corporation [Science and Invention] Historical Marker". Explore PA History. WITF-TV. Retrieved 2015.
  5. ^ Haxby, R.O.; Shoupp, W.E.; Stephens, W.E.; Wells, W.H. (January 1, 1941). "Photo-Fission of Uranium and Thorium". Physical Review. 59: 57. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.59.57. Retrieved 2019.
  6. ^ a b c "Milestones: Westinghouse Atom Smasher, 1937". Engineering and Technology History Wiki. ETHW Partnership. May 29, 1985. Retrieved 2019. includes link to 1985 videotape: 'IEEE Milestone Dedication Ceremony'
  7. ^ a b "PHMC Historical Markers Search" (Searchable database). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Retrieved .
  8. ^ Toker, Franklin (2009). Pittsburgh: A New Portrait. p. 470. ISBN 9780822943716.
  9. ^ Fey, Maury; Dollard, Walt (April 3, 2015). "The Echoes from Westinghouse at Forest Hills / Forest Hills Nuclear History". Atomic Confluence. Retrieved 2019.
  10. ^ a b c O'Neill, Brian (January 25, 2015). "Brian O'Neill: With Forest Hills atom smasher's fall, part of history tumbles". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  11. ^ a b "Mightiest Atom Smasher At East Pittsburgh, PA". Life. 3 (9): 36-39. August 30, 1937. Retrieved 2019.
  12. ^ a b "Huge generator to smash atoms". Popular Science. 131 (1): 35. July 1937. Retrieved 2015.
  13. ^ a b Chubb, L.W. (November 1941). "Giving Atoms the Third Degree". Popular Mechanics. 76 (5): 8-11. Retrieved 2019.
  14. ^ a b c d e Harkins, Jill (January 21, 2015). "Atom smasher in Forest Hills torn down; restoration promised". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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