Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In a city filled with illuminated signs, Westinghouse's light show was the one to watch for 30 years. Nostalgia for it remains.
Long before the lights from Pittsburgh's PNC Park began illuminating the North Shore every summer, a local corporation gave the city an art show every night on the same grounds.
The Westinghouse Electric Supply Company (a subsidiary of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, or Wesco), based in Pittsburgh, moved into a warehouse facing the Allegheny River in 1948. On its roof, a giant orange and blue sign spelled out the the company's tag line, "You can be sure … if it’s Westinghouse."
As modernist design trickled down from the Bauhaus to Madison Avenue, most noticeably in the 1960s, corporate giants like Westinghouse began leaning towards minimalist visual identities. In 1960, Paul Rand gave the company a logo that looked like an electrical socket that also spelled out the letter W.
Six years later, Richard Huppertz, head of Westinghouse's Corporate Design Center, wanted to emphasize the company's sleek new identity with text-free signage on top of their North Shore warehouse. Huppertz ran the idea by Rand, who then came up with the country's first computer-controlled sign:
In June 1967, the top of 209 West General Robinson St. was adorned with a 200-foot wall hosting 3,000 feet of neon tubing inside nine of Rand's Ws, each one 17.5 feet in diameter. There was no accompanying text. Hooked up to a company computer, the Ws lit up in various sequences—600 billion trillion of them, according to one of the installers.
The light show was actually a 6-minute cycle of 120 sequences determined by Westinghouse designers—still more than enough to keep Pittsburghers entranced. "A lot of people who grew up in Western Pennsylvania at the time still remember it," says Ed Reis, Westinghouse historian at the Heinz History Center. "It was kind of mesmerizing." In 1980, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described it as "a neon riddle that looks like it was created by a drug-inspired artist who really enjoyed flashing lights."
It was a chance to show off a corporate logo in an eye-catching way, no small feat considering Pittsburgh's incredible collection of big, illuminated signage. Westinghouse also saw the computer-powered piece as an artistic symbol of the relationship between itself and the city.
"Why a computerized sign?" a company press release asked on the occasion of the sign's installation. "Well, Westinghouse computer systems already run ships and steel mills, power plants, utility networks, and mass transit systems. So, why not a sign—here in Pittsburgh—to dramatize the role Pittsburgh plays in today's new technologies?"
Three-circle versions of the sign were later put on top of Westinghouse buildings in Cleveland and New York. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, that symbol of economic power eventually turned into a relic. The same Post-Gazette piece from 1980 that praised the sign's uniqueness also noted that it went dark for months in the 1970s due to a power shortage. The following decades were unkind to Pittsburgh's economy, and in the 1990s Wesco was bought up by a private equity firm, while Westinghouse itself purchased CBS, proceeded to sell off much of the rest of its holdings, and then changed its named to the CBS Corporation*.
In 1998, the warehouse was demolished to make way for the Pittsburgh Pirates' new baseball stadium. Preservationists hoped to save one of the neon circles and move it into the the History Center, but it fell apart while being disassembled.
It's been more than 15 years since the nine Ws came down, but nostalgia for them hasn't faded. A company that makes illuminated fixtures for miniature railroad sets produced a tiny replica of the sign in response to "the overwhelming number of requests" from enthusiasts. (They are now sold out.)
Just this week, someone who remembered seeing the sign as a kid introduced their own replica to the world on YouTube:
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that CBS purchased Westinghouse in the 1990s. In fact, Westinghouse purchased CBS and then changed its name to CBS Corporation.