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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Visit Pennsylvania's Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher, also known as the Westinghouse Cyclotron, was a pioneering particle accelerator that played a significant role in the development of nuclear physics and related technologies in the mid-20th century. It was built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh and was operational from 1937 to 1958.


The atom smasher was a circular device that used powerful magnets to accelerate charged particles, such as protons, to high speeds and smash them into target materials, such as metal foils or gases. This process generated intense radiation and allowed scientists to study the properties of atomic nuclei and subatomic particles.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

One of the key figures behind the Westinghouse Atom Smasher was Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence, a renowned physicist who had invented the cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1930s. The cyclotron was a compact and efficient particle accelerator that could produce high-energy beams of particles for research and medical applications.


In 1936, Lawrence and his colleague M. Stanley Livingston were invited to collaborate with Westinghouse on building a larger and more powerful cyclotron, which would be used for industrial and military research. The project was supported by funding from the federal government and the Rockefeller Foundation.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was completed in 1937 and was housed in a massive concrete bunker that could withstand the radiation emitted by the device. The cyclotron itself was about 25 feet in diameter, more than sixty feet tall, and weighed over 200 tons. It was powered by a series of vacuum tubes and high-voltage transformers that could produce up to 80,000 volts of electricity.


The atom smasher was used for a wide range of experiments in nuclear physics, chemistry, and biology. Scientists at Westinghouse and other institutions used it to study the structure and behavior of atomic nuclei, the production of radioactive isotopes, the effects of radiation on materials and living organisms, and other topics.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

One of the most notable achievements of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher was the discovery of the neutron, a neutral particle that had been predicted by theoretical physicists but had not been observed directly. In 1939, a team of researchers led by Edwin McMillan and Philip Abelson used the cyclotron to produce and detect neutrons for the first time.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher also played a role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to develop the first atomic bombs during World War II. Westinghouse scientists conducted research on the production of enriched uranium and plutonium, two key materials used in the bombs.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

After the war, the atom smasher continued to be used for research in nuclear physics and related fields. However, it faced increasing competition from newer and more advanced particle accelerators, such as the synchrotron and the linear accelerator. In 1958, Westinghouse decided to decommission the atom smasher and dismantle it.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Today, the Westinghouse Atom Smasher is remembered as a pioneering achievement in the history of nuclear physics and technology. Its legacy includes the development of the cyclotron and the discovery of the neutron, as well as the contributions of Westinghouse scientists to the Manhattan Project and other important scientific and industrial projects.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The atom smasher can be found in an abandoned lot on the corner of North Ave and West Street in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. Parking is permitted anywhere streetside other than Service Rd No. 1 which is the road that runs right beside the lot.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The lot is private property and fenced off to the public, but you can still get really great looks at it from behind the fenceline.


Westinghouse Atom Smasher

The large piles of bricks that you'll find in the northeast corner of the lot are actually there for a reason. When the atom smasher was taken down, crews laid piles of bricks beside it to help cushion the fall. After it toppled the bricks that could be moved, were. If you scroll back up and look at the third, fourth, and fifth photos you'll notice many of the crushed bricks still around it. There's also a historical marker paying tribute to the atom smasher on the corner of North Ave and West St.


And that's a little history on the Westinghouse Atom Smasher. If you find yourself on the eastside of Pittsburgh with some time to kill this is definitely worth a visit. You won't be disappointed.


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