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What happened to the blue Circle-W, Westinghouse lights that dominated the view from Mount Washington? I used to have their blinking sequence memorized.

Question submitted by: Grace Rohrer

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Many Pittsburghers, no doubt, have fond memories of this sign: a series of nine giant blue "W" symbols inscribed in circles. All night long, the symbols would light up in seemingly random patterns, a blaze of blue neon shining on the North Side.

 

It may be just as well those lights are gone now: As a Democrat, I'm not sure that I could have stood nine endlessly repeated "W"s every night since the 2000 election. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, those signs were torn down in the late summer of 1998. Why? To make room for another would-be beacon of commerce and identity: PNC Park.

 

The "W"s were mounted atop a 50-year-old building that housed Wesco, a company formerly known as the Westinghouse Electrical Supply Company. A spin-off of the original Westinghouse, Wesco was one of the few success stories still connected to the name: By 1998, Westinghouse itself had been devoured in a merger with CBS.

 

So it seemed a bit of an omen when the Wesco building was slated to be the first one to be razed for the new ballpark. As demolition drew near in 1998, a handful of public officials recognized that something was about to be lost. Dan Onorato, who was then just a city councilor, demonstrated a flair for lost causes that serves him well as county executive today. He and a handful of others began seeking a local museum that would house the sign, or a new outdoor location to display it publicly. Onorato's fellow councilor, Jim Ferlo, recommended the sign be put "on top of the CBS building in New York" -- perhaps in the hopes it would fall on somebody important.

 

Indeed, in a gesture that defined CBS's entire relationship to Pittsburgh, the company decided not to keep the sign. But what doomed the sign is exactly what made it so memorable: its size. Each "W" was 18 feet in diameter, which made storing all nine pieces impractical. A month after Onorato began his crusade, the Post-Gazette reported that "The sign was too deteriorated to erect somewhere else," though one "W" was slated for storage at the Heinz History Center.

 

Demolition of the Wesco building began Sept. 29, 1998. Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy summed up the gravity of the moment -- that pivotal instant in which one era ended and another began -- with his usual ear for poetry.

 

"Let's knock that sucker down," he told reporters.

 

I was most intrigued by your claim to have memorized their sequence. The urban legend was that the sign never lit in exactly the same pattern twice. I've searched in vain for an authoritative account of how the sign worked, but I did come across archival photographs showing that each "W" had 10 sections, each capable of being turned on or off separately. The circle was made up of two parts; there were four slanting legs in each "W" and three round dots atop it, and beneath each "W" was a solid line. By my calculations, then, each letter could be lit in 3,628,800 different combinations.

 

Those photos, and my memory, suggests the order wasn't entirely random: The same changes seemed to happen to several letters at once. Still, it seems safe to say you'd have to watch a long time to pick out a definitive pattern. How long? Just for fun -- yes, I'm that big a geek -- I calculated how many combinations were possible for a sign made up of nine symbols, each capable of having its 10 parts lit in any order.

 

On such a sign, any of 90 lights could be lit first. After that, one of 89 still-dark lights could go on, and then any of 88 that were still dark, and so on. If I remember the algebra section on "factorials" correctly, that works out to ... to ... a little less than a "15" followed by 137 zeroes. By comparison, if you assume the earth is 4.5 billion years old, the number of seconds that have elapsed since the dawn of time is only a 14 followed by 17 zeros. So if you wanted to wait to see a pattern get repeated, you'd have to wait a long time. Even longer if you believe in creationism.

 

Thanks to PNC Park, of course, we'll all be waiting forever.

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