Article: A Brief History of Small :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center senior historian
Nanogears. Courtesy NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

"Nano" has become a buzzword, a promise, and a threat, all in what may seem like a nanosecond. But this most current technology has a history more than half a century long.

As Lemelson Center director Art Molella points out, the original idea of science and engineering at the molecular level can be traced to 1959. Speaking at a meeting of the American Physical Society, physicist Richard Feynman outlined "a field in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle." At the core of this new field of study was "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." [1]

Feynman, however, did not use the term "nanotechnology" in his speech. It wasn't until fifteen years later that Norio Taniguchi, a professor at Tokyo Science University, defined the word. "Nano-technology," he wrote, "mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule." At the time that Taniguchi put forward this description, however, no one had actually seen an atom. Another seven years passed before that changed.

Closeup of scanning tunneling microscope sample. Photo by Royce Hunt M0RHI, via Wikimedia Commons

In September 1981, two scientists at IBM's Zürich Research Laboratory in Switzerland published a paper in Applied Physics Letters. In that breakthrough article, Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig described their invention of the first successful scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The STM produces a three-dimensional profile of a material with an electric current that flows between the STM's fine stylus tip and the material's surface. As the tip scans across the substance, it maintains a carefully measured, constant distance and produces an image that reveals the hills and valleys, so to speak, of the material being scanned, down to an atom-by-atom depiction. Binnig and Rohrer won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics (shared with Ernst Ruska, who designed the first electron microscope in 1931) for their work on the STM.

The same year that Binnig and Rohrer claimed their Nobel Prize, Eric Drexler, influenced by Richard Feynman's talk, published Engines of Creation. Reworking many of his ideas from a 1981 technical paper into a more popular book, Drexler postulated the possibilities of "molecular manufacturing," the ability to combine atoms and molecules in determined sequences to build new things. This, he argued, was something nature did all the time: "Arranged one way," he wrote, "atoms make up soil, air, and water; arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries." Now that the STM enabled us to see atoms, Drexler believed we could manipulate the building blocks of matter. "Molecules will be assembled like the components of an erector set," he wrote. And "molecular tools will bond molecules together to make tiny gears, motors, levers, and casings, and assemble them to make complex machines." [2] Don Eigler, a physicist and instrumentation specialist at IBM, put Drexler's theory to the test. He modified an STM so it could not only make images of atoms, but move them around as well. In 1989, he created what has been called the world's smallest corporate logo by positioning single atoms to spell out "IBM."

Not everyone who read Engines of Creation believed that manipulating atoms in the way Drexler described was possible, however. Perhaps the strongest critic was Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, who asserted, "Self-replicating, mechanical nanobots are simply not possible in our world. To put every atom in its place--the vision articulated by some nanotechnologists--would require magic fingers. Such a nanobot will never become more than a futurist's daydream." [3] Still, the notion of autonomous nanobots caught hold in the popular imagination. In the 20th-anniversary edition of Engines, Drexler noted that these ideas "had spread into popular culture--science fiction, movies, and video games--and taken on a life of their own. The ideas that spread fastest simplified, transmogrified, and sensationalized. Soon, 'nanotechnology' was all about making so-called 'nanobots'--self-replicating bug-like things that could work miracles, but would inevitably run amok, eat the world, and turn it into 'gray goo.' And these monster nanobugs were, of course, said to be my idea." [4]

Nanosensor tattoo system for monitoring glucose levels. Courtesy of Heather Clark

Today, marauding hordes of nanobugs still wreak havoc in the world of science fiction, but more benevolent uses of nanotechnology are finding their way into everyday life. As of March 2011, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had listed 1,317 nanotechnology-based consumer technologies in its ongoing inventory. The Lemelson Center recently featured a researcher working on one of these new applications of nanotechnology as part of our NanoDays 2011 programs. Dr. Heather Clark, Northeastern University, talked about her work on a nanosensor "tattoo" that could replace blood-based glucose testing for diabetics. Nanosensors injected under the skin glow when glucose levels are outside the normal range and a small handheld or wearable "reader" interprets this fluorescence through the skin.

Applications like Clark's nanosensor show great promise, but the full potential of nanotechnology--both positive and negative--is still a matter of speculation. In 2003, inventor and visionary Ray Kurzweil predicted, "By the 2020s, molecular assembly will provide tools to effectively combat poverty, clean up our environment, overcome disease, extend human longevity, and many other worthwhile pursuits. Like every other technology that humankind has created, it can also be used to amplify and enable our destructive side. It is important that we approach this technology in a knowledgeable manner to gain the profound benefits it promises, while avoiding its dangers.... Denying the feasibility of an impending technological transformation is a short-sighted strategy."

[1] Richard P. Feynman, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Engineering & Science 23, no. 5 (February 1960): 22.

[2] K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), pp. 3, 12.

[3] Richard E. Smalley, "Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots," Scientific American (Sept. 2001): 76-77.

[4] K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation 2.0: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (Los Angeles: WOWIO E-Books, 2007), p. 10.

From Prototype, May 2011

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