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Developer seeks to preserve Westinghouse's first-generation atom smasher

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 11:53 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
An interior view shows the coils making up the world’s first large-scale, industrial atom smasher, part of the former Westinghouse Research Laboratories property. The new property owner is looking for someone interested in preserving the atom smasher before new development begins. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
The new owner of the former Westinghouse Research Laboratories property Gary Silversmith (left) and developer Barry Cassidy are looking for someone who might be interested in preserving the world’s first large-scale, industrial atom smasher before new development begins. 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 der Graaff particle accelerator, the world’s first industrial atom smasher. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
The atom smasher is on the List of Pittsburgh Landmarks recognized by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

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 jcato@tribweb.com.

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