Ex-Atom Smasher

Westinghouse atom smasher laying on its side at the site of former Westinghouse research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Westinghouse atom smasher, Forest Hills

This blogger knows what you’re thinking: That would look great in my apartment! Am I right? Well, bad news: The Orbit’s got dibs. [Note to self: get apartment with sixty foot ceilings.]

That is the Westinghouse atom smasher. According to the historical marker on the site (see below) it’s the “world’s first industrial Van de Graaff generator, created by Westinghouse Research Labs in 1937.”

The Orbit pretends to be many things–substantive, humorous, newsworthy–but it won’t pretend to know science (at least, not in a post that “real scientists” might actually read). The atom smasher has been well-documented with its own Wikipedia page and Roadside America entry, not to mention countless news stories and physics lessons, so we’ll leave the facts to the pros.

Remains of Westinghouse building in Forest Hills, PA

Former Westinghouse Research Labs building

But to not cover the ex-atom smasher, currently laying on its side as the only remaining piece of the former Westinghouse Research Labs in Forest Hills, would be an oversight we’re not prepared to live with. We never ate dinner at Poli’s, never caught rays at Myrtle Booth, and never got a generator re-jiggered at Goeller. We’ll not make that same mistake with the only Van de Graaff generator we’re likely to encounter in this lifetime.

Westinghouse atom smasher on pile of rubble, Forest Hills, PA

It’s a strange sight today. The same historical marker describes the ex-atom smasher as a “pear-shaped structure,” but in its present form, it looks more like a great rusting lightbulb, laying in a pile of debris on a giant’s basement floor. Or maybe a Bladerunner-era war balloon, made of some future lighter-than-air material, downed tragically in an electrical storm.

Atom smasher on its side at the former Westinghouse research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Ex-atom smasher with Paul Rand’s great Westinghouse logo still clearly visible

It’s also beautiful. Especially the day we visited, under thick cloud cover with perfect mid-autumn leaf-changing adding an incongruous warmth to an otherwise cold, gray scene. The ex-atom smasher even looks comfortably nestled on the chock-a-block pile of bricks, broken concrete, and cinderblocks that have been swept together to (presumably) keep it from rolling away. Even faded, scored, and turned on its side, Paul Rand‘s great 1960 Westinghouse logo still looks fantastic.

Historical marker for Westinghouse atom smasher: the world's first Van de Graaff generator, 1937

Historical marker at the corner of F Ave. and Service Road No. 1 in Forest Hills

But this is maybe the most perfect way to see the ex-atom smasher today. The former site of the Westinghouse lab sits among a neighborhood of detached middle-class houses in the appropriately-named Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills. Its medium-large poured concrete footprint is surrounded on three sides not by industry, but thick foliage. The whole scene has a feeling of nature reclaiming this land, the ex-atom smasher the lone survivor as the earth’s wolves salivate at the chain-linked perimeter. Each of them thinking that would look great in my apartment.

Westinghouse atom smasher and giant pile of bricks from former research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Forest Hills: lunar landscape


Orbit bonus! The original atom smasher influenced some musical collisions as well, including a second-tier British prog band that took their name (with a slight spelling difference) from the technology. Here’s them, a couple dozen candelabras, and a whole lot of organ live in 1972:

As Robert Mueller mentions in the comments:

…WATCH the right hand of the keyboard player (from 3:36 to 3:42) and PAUSE at 3:39 !!! ASTONISHING !! His fingers are like LIQUID plastic !! HIS FINGERS ARE SHAPESHIFTING !!!! A REPTILIAN SHAPESHIFTER !!!!! These beings come from SIRIUS !!!!

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