The promise that launched

 the field of nanotechnology

by Eric Drexler on 2009/12/15

Part 1 of a series on the history and prospects of advanced nanotechnology concepts,
prompted by the upcoming 50th anniversary of Feynman’s historic talk,
“There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.

When the first million readers encountered “nanotechnology”

Now, over 20 years after the fact, it is easy to forget that a concept called “nanotechnology” first swept into the minds of a large, science-aware public quite abruptly, in November 1986, when nearly a million readers encountered the cover story of a leading general-audience, science-oriented magazine of that time, OMNI. A month before, the term and concept had been known to very few beyond the earliest readers of Engines of Creation.

The story, written by Fred Hapgood, was headlined on the cover as:

OMNI magazine cover, November 1986: Nanotechnology: Molecular Machines that Mimic Life. 

OMNI magazine, November 1986

In November, 1986, ~106 readers encountered a new concept
and term, “nanotechnology”, joining the earliest ~103 readers
of Engines of Creation. Both the term and the concept caught on.
Much activity followed, and substantial turbulence.

Some unusual aspects of the history of the concept of nanotechnology are important to understanding where the field stands today.

The 1986 OMNI article centered on concepts from my exploratory engineering work, and “nanotechnology” was the then-unused term that I’d applied to describe what I’d studied: a prospective, advanced, nanomachine-based technology that promised to deliver low-cost, large-scale, general-purpose, atomically precise fabrication — and with this, as a natural consequence, a surprisingly pervasive revolution in the physical basis of technology.

(Note that the technological means described were already several fundamental steps past the “mimicking life” idea pushed by the magazine title, and that these quite non-biological means were described as being several generations of technology beyond immediate reach.)

Five years before these 1986 events, I’d published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described the scientific principles of this approach to advanced fabrication (and aspects of the development path that has since unfolded). The article was titled “Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation” (PNAS, 1981), and a much deeper analysis was later the subject of my MIT dissertation, “Molecular Machinery and Manufacturing with Applications to Computation”. My 1986 book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, was quite different from these. I wrote it for a broad yet scientifically literate audience, and it found that audience in English, and later in Chinese, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Japanese translations.

Engines of Creation unleashed a process that led to a flood of research publications.Engines of Creation, boosted by the 1986 OMNI cover story,
launched a wave of excitement about the promise of nanotechnology,
followed by a surge of support for research in diverse nano-related fields.

A big splash launches a growing wave

Engines of Creation, which had been published earlier in the year, provided source material for the 1986 OMNI article, and the author of the article, Fred Hapgood, had been a regular participant in the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group, which I had founded the year before. These publications were followed by stories and book reviews in newspapers, news magazines, and Scientific American. The deeply entrenched perception of nanotechnology as a technology centered on advanced, atomically precise fabrication dates from this time. This was simply what the word meant.*

Over the following decade, the meaning of the term steadily expanded. The initial revolutionary concept launched a wave of excitement for everything “nano”; in science, this spurred a fresh, more unified focus on nanoscale phenomena, and generated an unprecedented surge of support for new research initiatives. A generation of students were inspired to turn their careers toward this bold new frontier.

By the early 21st century, research spending worldwide reached billions of dollars per year, fueled both by the mystique of nanotechnology as something profoundly revolutionary, and by a growing appreciation of the practical importance of nanoscale phenomena in materials and devices.

In this way, a new field coalesced and grew large under the banner of nanotechnology, and among many other accomplishments, it has steadily extended the reach of atomically precise fabrication technologies.

Disruptions due to pop-culture craziness caused a lot of turbulence along the way, and some missed opportunities, but that is another story. (Stay tuned…)

A page on my website outlines some aspects of this history — and its turbulence — that are relevant to understanding present opportunities in experimental nanotechnology:

What is Nanotechnology?

The term “nanotechnology” has two distinct meanings today, and to understand the field and its prospects, it’s important to understand both: They correspond to concepts and research objectives that are quite different, yet mutually supportive.

[Click to read more...]

See also:

* Was there a competing meaning for the term “nanotechnology” in 1986? To the best of my knowledge, the sole prior use of an almost-identical coinage (“nano-technology”) was in a 1974 overview of nano-precision fabrication processes by Prof. Norio Taniguchi. His paper was published in the proceedings of a production engineering conference held in Tokyo, and came to light in a post-1986 literature search.

[Title changed 18 Dec; text revised 25, 26 Dec. Timeline graphic & text revised 7 Sept 2010]

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