History of Nanotechnology

"Today's manufacturing methods move atoms in great thundering statistical herds"
Ralph Merkle

"The principles of physics do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."
Richard Feynman

Nanotechnology is very much the flavour of the moment in science fiction and popular science speculation nowadays.  In other words it is a meme - one of many flying around at the moment.

It is also something that is eminantly possible, and that may indeed change the world in the most dramatic way, and usher in what is referred to as the Singularity.

The word nanotechnology comes from the Greek prefix nano.  In modern scientific parlance, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, about the diameter of ten atoms placed side by side in a nanometer. Nanotechnology is about building things one atom at a time, and in doing so constructing devices with unprecedented capabilities.

The possiblity of molecular engineering first described by the brilliant Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman.  In 1959 Feynman gave a lecture at the California Institute of Technology called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" where he observed that the principles of physics do not deny the possibility of manipulating things atom by atom.   He suggested using small machines to make even tinier machines, and so on down to the atomic level itself.

Norio Taniguchi of Tokyo science University first defined nanotechnology in 1974. His definition still stands as the basic statement today:

"'Nano-technology' mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule."

(N. Taniguchi, "On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology'," Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering, 1974.) (full quote here http://nanodot.org/articles/01/06/04/1217257.shtml)

K. Eric Drexler Nanotechnology as it is understood now though, the Nanotechnology meme in other words, is the brainchild of Feynman's one-time student external linkK. Eric Drexler.  Drexler presented his key ideas in a paper on molecular engineering published in 1981, and expanded these themes in a layman comprehensible book Engines of Creation, published by Doubleday in 1987 (and now on-line at the Foresite Institute).  Drexler received a unique doctorate degree "in the field of nanotechnology" from MIT in 1991, under the supervision of Marvin Minsky, the world-renowned artificial intelligence pioneer.  The following year he published a more technical book, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation, which describes the principles and mechanisms of molecular nanotechnology.

In 1981 the invention of the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope or STM, by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM's Zurich Research Labs, and the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) five years later, made it possible to not only take photos of individual atoms, but to actual move a single atom around.  Soon after, John Foster of IBM Almaden labs was able to spell "IBM" out of 35 xenon atoms on a nickel surface, using a scanning tunnelling microscope to push the atoms into place.

References and further Reading

Richard Feynman, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

on-line bookEric Drexler Engines of Creation

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text by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 7 November 1998, last modified 24 May 2003