Developer seeks to preserve Westinghouse's first-generation atom smasher
By Jason Cato
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 11:52 p.m.
Smack in the middle of where a D.C. developer hopes to build apartments on the Forest Hills-Chalfant border stands a small brick building adorned with a towering steel orb.
The four-story weathered object, which resembles a giant light bulb, is the genesis of the Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s foray into nuclear power — a 1937 van de Graaff particle accelerator, the world's first industrial atom smasher.
“Westinghouse was really in the vanguard of nuclear power,” said Cynthia Kelly, president of the Washington-based Atomic Heritage Foundation. “It's great that they kept (the accelerator.) It's a great piece of history.”
Gary Silversmith thinks so, too. Now the developer wants to find a way to save it from the scrap heap.
“I love history, and I love saving stuff that is historic,” said Silversmith, whose P&L Investments LLC this year bought the 11-acre property that includes the atom smasher for an undisclosed amount from the CBS Corp.
The property's assessed value is $1.4 million, he said.
Researchers with the state Historical & Museum Commission plan to visit the site on Thursday to determine possible nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, spokesman Howard Pollman said. The federal program is designed to identify and protect historically significant properties.
Woodland Hills School District officials toured the property on Tuesday and say they might be interested in using the facility as the centerpiece of a new science program.
“I want to do whatever I can to save the atom smasher,” Silversmith said, adding that a corporate donor is willing to help fund an educational program.
He would not say whether the corporation is Westinghouse. A spokeswoman for the Cranberry-based company could not be reached.
Westinghouse built the atom smasher on a hilltop above Route 30 two years before the discovery of nuclear fission, which led to the advancement of nuclear power.
Company scientists used the structure to create nuclear reactions. They blasted target atoms with high-energy particles that accelerated down a vacuum tube at 100 million mph to a pressure vessel 47 feet below, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Research done at the Forest Hills center led in 1940 to the discovery of the photo-fission of uranium, a process involved in nuclear power generation.
Westinghouse in 1947 formed the Department of Electronics and Nuclear Physics, and its Shippingport reactor went online in 1957, becoming the country's first commercial nuclear generator.
The accelerator last smashed an atom in 1958.
The IEEE in 1985 added the atom smasher to its list of Electrical Engineering Milestones. In 2000, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation deemed it historically significant — a designation that includes no legal protections.
The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Carnegie Science Center and the Sen. John Heinz History Center all passed on taking stewardship because of the structure's size and unknown cost of moving it, Silversmith said.
“This is really meaningful to the community. That is clear,” said Silversmith, who bought and restored the USS Sequoia, the former White House yacht.
One of those interested in helping is Michael Funyak, who began his “Quest to Save the Westinghouse Atom Smasher” blog on Feb. 1 and has contacted Silversmith and other preservation groups.
“I'm not affiliated with any organization. It's just me trying to raise awareness and say this is pretty important,” said Funyak, 20, a Robert Morris University sophomore.
“This is worth saving because of the significance of those who came before us and the Westinghouse legacy.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Likely $2.3B influx puts PennDOT big-ticket road projects in play
- Natural history museum in the red
- Man shot by Pennsylvania state police at Pittsburgh International Airport was key witness in Massachusetts murder trial
- Hill District nonprofit’s finances are taking another dive
- Companies are rethinking their holiday parties with different kinds of venues
- American soldier charged in Iraq killings of deaf, unarmed teens
- Late Thanksgiving diminishes jingle of Salvation Army kettles
- Food stamp fraud, bloat overshadow debate on farm bill
- Drug company buys Duquesne prof’s cancer research
- North Park Lake Trail to be widened along Ingomar Road
- Money being raised to furnish Uniontown Marine’s home