Throwback Thursday: That Time We Smashed Atoms



The Westinghouse Atom Smasher sounds like the latest villain from a Batman summer blockbuster movie. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, however, there was nothing fictitious about this first of it’s kind scientific wonder. The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was the first Van De Graaff generator used for civilian nuclear research, located in Forest Hills.

The steel structure was built as part of Westinghouse’s growing interest in the brand-new field of nuclear physics. This upside-down pear of a building was designed as a 5-million-volt Van de Graff nuclear accelerator, also the world’s largest of its type. It allowed Westinghouse scientists to shoot a beam of high-energy particles (at a speed of 100 million miles per hour) at target atoms and observe the results. Research done there was said to have led to the photo-fission of uranium, an important step in the process of generating nuclear power. The old accelerator was used for research until it was shut down in 1958.

Believe it or not, Van de Graaff generators are still very popular today, oftentimes hidden in plain sight. Typically in science classes and museums, small scale versions are usually displayed and used to teach electrostatics. Then again, who am I kidding…you’ve probably seen “hip versions” sold in novelty stores like Spencer’s Gifts. 

Preservation efforts for the Westinghouse Atom Smasher have been ongoing for years, even though the bulb-like structure has been removed from it’s foundation and now rests on the site’s ground. As of 2010, The Westinghouse Atom Smasher is listed as a Pennsylvania Historical Marker. However, I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not the now defunct structure is currently an active Pokestop. 😉