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Nanotechnology Timeline

September 24, 2010

Humans sit in the middle of the universe, at a scale between the very large and the very small. This idea was first expressed by Sir Arthur Eddington in his 1927 book, "Stars and Atoms."[1]
"Nearly midway in scale between the atom and the star there is another structure no less marvellous - the human body. Man is slightly nearer to the atom than to the star."
It was only in Eddington's time that we had a good idea of the range of length scale between atoms, via atomic theory, and the universe, through the observations of Edwin Hubble. The diameter of the universe, which is larger than the portion that we can observe, is about 78 billion light-years, or 7.38 x 1026 meters. In the other direction, the current CODATA value of the classical electron radius is 2.82 x 10-15 meters. There is a smaller length, the Planck length, a length derived from fundamental physical constants, that's 1.61625 x 10-35 meters. Nothing is known about the physical significance of the Planck length, but it's conjectured to be the dimension associated with the "quantum foam" of the vacuum state.

Since humans are chemical factories, the size of humans is fixed by the size of atoms and the nature of their interactions. This isn't a bad place to be, since we can play with many orders of magnitude of length in our laboratories. If we exclude particle accelerators, which have evolved into instruments of monumental proportions, it's easy for us to work with objects from meter size to nanometer size. The Preeminent physicist, Richard Feynmann, expressed this idea in his famous talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," presented on December 29, 1959. Although the transistor had been invented in 1947, the centimeter-sized vacuum tube still reigned in electronics when Feynmann gave this talk. Now, fifty years later, foundries are routinely producing integrated circuits with features with dimensions of just a few tens of nanometers. Nanoscale technology has put new life into chemistry, and it's sparked innovations in other fields.

The US National Nanotechnology Initiative was proposed by US President Bill Clinton a decade ago, and billions of dollars have been allocated in this technology area. Nature has just published a review of this program that includes a nanotechnology timeline.[3] Many such timelines are published on the Internet.[4-8] Here's a composite.

1959Nobel Laureate, Richard P. Feynman, delivers his lecture entitled, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Feynmann did not use the term "nanotechnology" in his talk.
1960William McLellan constructs a nanoscale, 250 microgram, 2000 rev/min motor out of 13 separate parts.
1974Norio Taniguchi coins term "nanotechnology" in his paper, "On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology.'"
1974The first patent application on a molecular electronic device ("Organic Electronic Rectifying Devices," US Patent No. 3,953,874) is filed by Arieh Aviram and colleagues from IBM.
1975The National Science Foundation funds the National Research and Resource Facility for Sub-micron Structures at Cornell University, and other universities begin to establish their own facilities.
1981Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM invent the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM).
1985Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harry Kroto discover Buckminsterfullerene.


1986Tom Newman, a graduate student at Stanford University, writes the first page of "A Tale of Two Cities" in an area of just 3.5 x 10-13 square meters
1986Christoph Gerber, Calvin Quate and Gerd Binnig invent the Atomic Force Microscope.
1987Cornell's NSF center is renamed the National Nanofabrication Facility
1987Commercial STMs are sold by Digital Instruments.
1989/1990Donald Eigler and Erhard Schweizer of IBM's Almaden Research Center create an IBM logo from Xenon atoms, and it's published as a cover image for Nature, April 5, 1990.
1991Sumio Iijima discovers carbon nanotubes
1994John Gibbons, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, talks to the White House about Nanotechnology.
1996The first European nanotechnology conference is held.
2003The US Congress enacts the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which establishes the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
2006You know you're a principal field of science when you have a Nature journal! Nature Nanotechnology was first published in October, 2006.


  1. A. S. Eddington, "Stars and Atoms," Clarendon Press (1927).
  2. Richard P. Feynman, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," transcript of December 29, 1959, talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society.
  3. Corie Lok, "Nanotechnology: Small wonders," Nature, vol. 467, no. 7311 (September 2, 2010), pp. 18-21.
  4. Sammy Khayat, "Nanotechnology Timeline," (Pennsylvania State University Personal Page).
  5. Nano Technology Timeline: 16 Key Moments in Nanotech's Evolution (AOL).
  6. Nanotechnology Timeline, Thinkquest.org.
  7. David Kaiser, "Notes toward a Nanotech Timeline," OSTI Working Paper 6-06-001 (June 5, 2006).
  8. Google's Nanotechnology Timeline.                                   

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Linked Keywords: Sir Arthur Eddington; Orders of magnitude length; atoms; atomic theory; universe; Edwin Hubble; Observable_universe; CODATA; classical electron radius; Planck length; quantum foam; vacuum state; metabolism; Large Hadron Collider; Richard Feynmann; There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom; transistor; vacuum tube; semiconductor device fabrication; integrated circuits; US National Nanotechnology Initiative; Bill Clinton; Nature; William McLellan; Norio Taniguchi; Organic Electronic Rectifying Devices; US Patent No. 3,953,874; National Science Foundation; Cornell University; Gerd Binnig; Heinrich Rohrer; Scanning Tunneling Microscope; Richard Smalley; Robert Curl; Harry Kroto; Buckminsterfullerene; Tom Newman; Stanford University; Christoph Gerber; Calvin Quate; Atomic Force Microscope; National Nanofabrication Facility; Digital Instruments; IBM Almaden Research Center; Xenon; Sumio Iijima; John Gibbons; Office of Science and Technology Policy; 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act; Nature Nanotechnology.