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Monday, 14 May 2012

A Brief History of Nanotechnology: Part 2 - Early Developments

In our first post, we looked at some surprisingly early examples of nanotechnology at work. However, the field is generally considered to be a very modern one, and most major early developments occurred within the latter half of the 20th century.
The history of nanotechnology is often traced to a very specific moment of inception: the 29th of December, 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman delivered an after-dinner lecture called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" during a meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology.

Feynman's lecture predated the use of the term "nanotechnology" to describe the field of study as we now know it, but many of the ideas he explored and the questions he asked are still highly relevant.

Feynman wondered "why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?" and spoke of the possibility of building machines on a minute scale by "manoeuvring things atom by atom".

‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ writes Dr. K. Eric Drexler, whose own work in the 1970s and 80s did much to advance the field, "was a comparatively casual effort - an after-dinner speech at a conference - yet in it he presented a bold and enduring vision of a technological journey leading toward the atomic scale and toward the ultimate boundaries set by physical law. The world has travelled far toward what Feynman saw, and has far still to go."

It's hard to measure the exact impact that Feynman's talk had on the emergence of nanotechnology, of course, but, as Drexler points out, "Feynman was the first to outline a world of technologies that would work and build at the ultimate, atomic scale".

The term "nanotechnology" itself wasn't coined until 1974, when Tokyo Science University Professor Norio Taniguchi defined it: "'Nano-technology' mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule’.' Taniguchi used the term "to describe semiconductor processes such as thin film deposition and ion beam milling exhibiting characteristic control on the order of a nanometer. The ideas contained in this definition were further explored and developed by Drexler in the late 70s and 1980s, culminating in the release of his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology in 1986, which "is considered the first book on the topic of nanotechnology".

In next weeks post we will take a closer look at these ideas and how they developed.

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