The Westinghouse 'atom smasher' was more about Pittsburgh’s atomic PR
Yes, save the thing. But it’s a landmark mostly to the use of science for self-promotion
February 1, 2015 12:00 AM
Steven Morus for the Post-Gazette
The Westinghouse 'atom smasher' sits on its side last month, awaiting preservation as the property is redeveloped.
Known locally as the Westinghouse atom smasher, the Van de Graaf-type atomic accelerator was housed in the dome-topped building at bottom left of the company's Forest Hills research laboratories, shown here in 1937.
By Patrick Vitale
On Jan. 20, a Washington, D.C.-based developer demolished the foundation of the Westinghouse “atom smasher.” Photos showed the once towering Van de Graaf generator lying on a pile of bricks. The press, public and preservationists rightly decried the possible destruction of a landmark of the nuclear age, though the developer promised to preserve it somehow. The atom smasher was described as the nation’s first Van de Graaf generator, as a predecessor of the Manhattan Project and as Westinghouse’s entry into the field of nuclear power.
All of these claims are exaggerations. They are also understandable, given the mythology that has long existed about the atom smasher and nuclear technology in Pittsburgh.
In 1935, L.W. Chubb, the director of the Westinghouse Research Laboratory in Forest Hills, decided to enter the field of nuclear physics. He did so because he feared ceding a possibly profitable area of business to Westinghouse’s archrival, GE. He and fellow executives also hoped that cutting-edge research would boost Westinghouse’s standing among scientists and the general public.
Westinghouse desperately needed to rehabilitate its reputation. In the early years of the Great Depression, the company had laid off numerous scientists. As a result, few saw Westinghouse as a promising employer. The company also dismissed thousands of other workers and labor unrest became increasingly common in its plants. Westinghouse executives entered the field of nuclear physics with the hope that it would generate promising new research, attract scientific talent and improve its public image.
Mr. Chubb hired W.H. Wells, a professor at the University of Minnesota, to head the nuclear physics lab. One of first orders of business for Mr. Wells was to identify the equipment that the laboratory should purchase, a decision that he did not make purely on scientific grounds.
At the time, cyclotrons, a different type of particle accelerator, were proliferating across the country and there were rumors that GE already had one on order. However, while a cyclotron might be the most useful, it would not generate the publicity Westinghouse was seeking. A Van de Graaf generator, on the other hand, was a much flashier piece of equipment. But Westinghouse could not just replicate an existing Van de Graaf; it needed a much bigger one. Mr. Wells proposed a 10-megavolt version: the largest yet constructed.
Mr. Wells proposed a $42,000 research program centered on a 10-megavolt Van de Graaf. Mr. Chubb agreed, noting that “the publicity possibilities” of the atom smasher “will be outstanding.” Despite the “high estimated cost of the venture,” executives in East Pittsburgh concurred, noting that the expense was necessary to “obtain good publicity value.” Thus, as Mr. Wells and Mr. Chubb busied themselves with the construction of the atom smasher, they also laid the groundwork for a major publicity campaign that would maximize its “prestige creating value.”
Westinghouse revealed the atom smasher in the summer of 1937. Major national publications covered the company’s efforts to “crack the atom.” Life ran a photo spread, and an article in Time praised Westinghouse’s “reputation for farsightedness.” Westinghouse’s New York office wrote Mr. Chubb to praise him for the positive publicity he had generated for the company.
The atom smasher remained in use for only a few years. In 1941, World War II caused Westinghouse to close its nuclear physics program in Forest Hills as its lab shifted entirely to defense work. The atom smasher was repurposed as a storage vessel for compressed air used in jet propulsion research.
Westinghouse made many contributions to the defense effort, but it did very little for the Manhattan Project. Besides refining a small amount of uranium on the roof of its Newark plant, the company’s signal contribution was to develop centrifuges for refining uranium that were never used during the war. When the war ended, this did not stop the company from celebrating its contributions to the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today the atom smasher is seen as a great success for Pittsburgh and Westinghouse, even though it made few discoveries, did not contribute to the Manhattan Project and had almost no bearing on the company’s eventual entry into the field of nuclear power. Its main success was, as intended, to rehabilitate Westinghouse’s reputation.
All that said, the atom smasher nevertheless should be preserved. It is an important landmark, but mostly to how local businesses and regional boosters have tirelessly used science for self-promotion. It helped inaugurate a pattern in which science and technology have been routinely offered as the saving grace of Pittsburgh. Today, when we are told that robotics or nuclear power or biomedical research or Google will save Pittsburgh, we should recall the real story of the atom smasher as a cautionary tale.
Patrick Vitale, a former resident of Murrysville, is an assistant professor and faculty fellow in the Draper Program at New York University. He is completing a book manuscript about the role of science and technology in the transformation of Pittsburgh and its suburbs during the Cold War.
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