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Pittsburgh had a hand in the development of atomic and nuclear energy

Pittsburgh had hand in development of atomic and nuclear energy
Pittsburgh had hand in development of atomic and nuclear energy 02:52

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- As the movie "Oppenheimer" continues to march firmly towards $1 billion in the global box office revenue, it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that Pittsburgh had a hand in the development of both atomic and nuclear energy.

Enter the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which in the mid-1930s, built a pioneering atomic research laboratory in Forest Hills with its water-tower-like structure known as the Atom Smasher.

Marni Blake Walter is a writer and scholar who has done extensive research on Westinghouse and their research labs. She says that all this research that was done both in the labs and with the Atom Smasher laid the foundation for what would come during the Manhattan Project and the nuclear age beyond.

"The Westinghouse Atom Smasher started Westinghouse's involvement in all things nuclear," said Walter. "Without that, they wouldn't have been in this game at all. And as you may know, they went on to be very involved in nuclear technology over many years. But the history of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher really goes back to that sort of earliest period before the Manhattan Project where scientists had kind of just discovered parts of the atom and what was going on with that. And that kind of set of this wave of atom smashing."

And what exactly did the Atom Smasher do? It is a bit complicated, but a lot is in the name. The Atom Smasher would accelerate particles at high speeds and then smash them with targeted atoms. The scientists would analyze the results of everything from the collision to the radiation.

While the atomic research that was being done in Forest Hills did inevitably help people like Oppenheimer and his team when they were developing the atomic bomb, Walter says the connection the Westinghouse labs had to the Manhattan Project was less about the science and more about the scientists, like Dr. Edward Condon.

"He was one of the leaders of the research program based at the Atom Smasher," said Walter. "And he was actually chosen as Oppenheimer's associate director, and he went out to work at Los Alamos."

Condon left the Manhattan Project before its completion. One reason, Walter says, was due to the fact that he had a teenage daughter, and the makeshift Atomic City didn't have a high school for her to go to. And because security on the base was so tight, she wasn't able to go to the closest school in town.

Still, Condon had a big legacy with his short time on the project. He put together the "Los Alamos Primer," a booklet for all scientists coming onto the Manhattan Project that talked about the principles of nuclear weapons.

Both Condon and his old Westinghouse lab saw a big career after the war. Condon went on to be the director of the National Bureau of Standards in the Truman administration and the Westinghouse labs continued their research into the 1980s. Sadly though, not much remains in Forest Hills of the old facility. The labs grew larger and moved, and the building began sitting vacant. All but the smasher itself was demolished and removed in January of 2015.

Still, the remains of this place and Pittsburgh's role in atomic history can't be denied.

"Pittsburgh has a really great legacy in being really one of the innovators of nuclear power in those early days," said Walter. "And really, the Atom Smasher is the point where all of that started."

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