Friday, January 23, 2015

Historic Atom Smasher Felled

Unfortunate news out of Pittsburgh this week. The nearly 80-year-old, long defunct Westinghouse Atom Smasher has been toppled.

The felled Atom Smasher in Forest Hills, Penn.
Image: WTAE Pittsburgh
The five-story steel bulb was the first industrial particle accelerator ever built, and was the most powerful in the world when it was completed in 1937. Its unusual bulb shape is because it is an old Van de Graaff style electrostatic accelerator. The steel dome would build up a huge electrical charge, repelling positively charged ions down a beam tube onto an experiment  or detector. It's a design that today is mostly obsolete, but a few modern accelerators use a version of the technology.

The Physics Buzz team visited the site in November of 2013, and discovered more about it's history and design. It's not even the only one left over from the 1930s either.

The Atom Smasher in 2013


The developer who owned the property, Gary Silversmith, had been trying to raise funds to turn the building into an education center. However with projected costs to refurbish its supporting brick structure nearing $2 million, repurposing the old facility was just not economically feasible.

"Right now the bulb is on the ground, but we are going to establish a new concrete base for it, and keep it at the site, and have the bulb repainted, including the 'W' for Westinghouse," Silversmith said in an email.

He added that he is still working with the Westinghouse corporation and the Forest Hills school district to try and refurbish and repurpose the steel bulb in some capacity.

WTAE reported that the Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick was disappointed at the destruction of the facility but is still hopeful that they can find a permanent home for the massive steel accelerator.

The Atom Smasher during its heyday, ca. 1940s.
Image: The Senator John Heinz History Center

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