I. What is nanotechology?

Wikipedia defines nanotechnology: The control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally 1 to 100 nanometers… One nanometer (nm) is one billionth, or 10-9of a meter… a DNA double-helix has a diameter around 2 nm. On the other hand, the smallest cellular lifeforms, the bacteria of the genus Mycoplasma, are around 200 nm in length. To put that scale in to context the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the earth”.

Nanotechnology aims at replacing the industrial mode of production. Eric Drexler, in "Unbounding the Future: the Nanotechnology Revolution" writes: "Technology-as-we-know-it is a product of industry... it takes things from nature... and coerces them into forms that someone considers useful... Each process is crude, based on cutting, stirring, baking, spraying, etching, grinding, and the like".

As opposed to this, there is a "bottom up" approach to manufacturing. Individuals atoms and molecules are taken, put together in a process called "mechanosynthesis"; energy is largely provided by the sun. Hence, Drexler writes: "Trees are high technology. Chips and rockets aren't".

A photograph made by the author of this essay
depicts a fly sitting on a bunch of leaves. Both fly and the leaves are high technology: the fly is more agile than our aircraft, and the leaves are more efficient at converting the sun's energy than our solar cells. Both fly and leaves are examples of nanotechnology.

II. History of nanotechnology

If you want to study a field, only the best teachers should be chosen. As a rule, in every field, there are relatively few brilliant names, with the rest just trailing behind.

a. "Who's Who in Nanospace"

Magazine Nanotechnology Now has an article Who's Who in the Nanospace, last updated Saturday, 24 March 2007. The first two names are Eric Drexler and Robert Merkle. Here is what the magazine writes about them:


Eric Drexler

K. Eric Drexler: ... In the mid 1980s, he introduced the term 'nanotechnology' to describe atomically precise molecular manufacturing systems and their products... He is a founder and current Chairman of the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit educational organization established to help prepare for advanced technologies. He wrote Engines of Creation (1986) to introduce a broad audience to the prospect of advanced nanotechnologies -- their nature, promise, and dangers -- and Nanosystems (AAP 1992 Most Outstanding Computer Science Book) to provide a graduate-level introduction to the fundamental physical and engineering principles of the field.


Ralph Merkle

Ralph Merkle, Ph.D.: Dr. Merkle received his Ph.D. from Standford University in 1979 where he co-invented public key cryptography. He joined Xerox PARC in 1988, pursuing research in computational nanotechnology until 1999. He chaired the Fourth and Fifth Foresight Conferences on Nanotechnology, is on the Executive Editorial Boards of the journal Nanotechnology, was co-recipient of the 1998 Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology Theory... He has been at Zyvex since 1999, where he continues his nanotechnology research.

The other names mentioned in "Who's who in nanospace" are:


Richard Feynman

"Richard P. Feynman: One of the greatest theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. Famous for - among other things - this quote which is regarded as the "start" of nanotechnology "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."


Robert Freitas

"Robert A. Freitas Jr.: "He co-edited the 1980 NASA feasibility analysis of self-replicating space factories and later authored the first detailed technical design study of a medical nanorobot ever published in a refereed biomedical journal. Most recently, he authored "Nanomedicine," the first book-length technical discussion of the potential medical applications of molecular nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics."


Gerd Binning

"Gerd Binnig & Heinrich Rohrer: Inventors of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (1981), and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their work in scanning tunneling microscopy [which they shared with Ernst Ruska, designer of the first electron microscope]. An STM can image details down to 1/25th the diameter of an atom - several orders of magnitude better than the best electron microscope."


Richard Smalley

"Richard E. Smalley: Dr. Smalley was the head of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, and Chairman of the Board Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc.. Recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes", i.e. nanotubes.


Don Eigler

"Don Eigler: In 1989, Dr. Don Eigler used his STM to spell out the letters "I-B-M," demonstrating the ability to position individual atoms with atomic-scale precision. Since then, his group has demonstrated the ability to construct custom molecules and even to operate an electrical switch whose only moving part is a single atom."


Sumio Iijima

"Sumio Iijima: Dr. Iijima has been a Senior Research Fellow at NEC Corporation since 1987, and discovered carbon nanotubes in 1991."


John Hall

"John Storrs Hall: Known as the originator of the Utility Fog concept, "Josh" is also a Research Fellow of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing [IMM]. He has a background in computer science, particularly parallel processor architectures, artificial intelligence, particularly agoric and genetic algorithms as used in design, and reversible computing, and his research interests include molecular nanotechnology, particularly the theory of self-reproducing machines, and the design of useful macroscopic machines using the capabilities of molecular manufacturing".

Kurzweil 2006 converted

Ray Kurzweil

"Ray Kurzweil: Inventor, scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, writer - Ray Kurzweil is perhaps today's most outspoken proponent of the Singularity, and the merger of human and machine intelligence. Among his awards are the $500,000 2001 Lemelson-MIT Prize - world's largest in invention and innovation, and the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology."

b. Sergey Bobrovsky

In 2003 Sergey Bobrovsky comes out with an excellent article on the history of nanotechnology "How much space is there at the bottom?"

First, he defines nanotechnology as "a possibility of manipulation with individual molecules and atoms of matter". 

Then, he starts outlining the history of nanotech.

"The birth date of nanotechnology is 29 December 1959. A professor of California Institute of Technology Richard Feynman (Nobel prize winner in 1965) in his lecture "There is plenty of room at the bottom", given before the American physical society, noticed the possibility of using atoms in the form of building blocs.

1966. American physicist Russel Young, working in the National Bureau of Standards, invented a piezoengine which is used today ins scanning tunneling microscopes and for positioning nanoinstruments within 0.01 angstrom (1 nanometer = 10 angstrom).

1968. An executive vice-president of Bell company Alfred Cho and his colleague in the department of semiconductors John Arthur proved theoretically that it is possible to use nanotechnologies for working on surfaces and achieving atomic precision in creation of electronic instruments.

1971. Russel Young put forward the idea of an instrument he called Topografiner, which was a model for a probing microscope. Long term of development of such devices is explained by the fact that observation of atomic structures leads to changing their state, and hence principally new approaches were needed which did not destroy the matter under investigation.

However, soon works on Topografiner were stopped and recognition came to Young only in 1979, after which he received many awards.

1974. A Japanese physicist Norio Taniguchi, working at Tokyo University, proposed the term "nanotechnology" (meaning the process of analysis, synthesis and change of materials through influencing them with a single atom or a single molecule); this proposal soon achieved popularity in scientific circles.

1982. In the Zurich research center of IBM, physicists Gerd Binning and Henrich Rorer (Nobel Prize winners in 1986 together with Ernst Ruska) created a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which allows to obtain a 3-D picture of position of atoms on surfaces of conducting materials. Main problem in the investigation was background noise - the tip of the microscope, which was positioned with the precision of a fraction of an atom, went out of focus due to the slightest noises and vibrations on the street.

1985. Three American physicists: a professor of Rice University Richard Smalley, as well as Robert Karl and Harold Croto (Nobel prize winners in 1996) discovered fullerenes - molecules which consists of 60 atoms of carbon, structured in a form of a sphere. These scientists were also able for the first time to measure an object whose length was 1 nm.

1986. Gerd Binnig developed a scanning atomic force probing microscope which allowed to visualize atoms of any materials (and not only conductors), as well as manipulate them.

1986. American scientist Eric Drexler, working in the lab of Artificial Intellect at MIT, wrote a book called "The Engines of Creation" in which he proposed a concept of universal molecular robots, working according to a given program and synthesizing anything, including machines similar to themselves, from molecules in their environment. This idea probably came to Drexler from his main activity - in the problems of artificial intelligence one often encounters the idea of self-replicating systems. This scientist has predicted many of the future achievements of nanotechnologies, and starting with 1989 his predictions came true, often ahead of time.

1987-88. In a Scientific Research Institute "Delta", under direction of P.N. Luskinovich, a first Russian nanotechnological installation started working; it achieved a directed flow of particles from a tip of a probing microscope under influence of heating.

1989. Scientists Donald Eigler and Erhard Shwezer from IBM's California Research Center used 35 atoms of xenon to spell the name of their company on a crystal of nickel. 

1991. A Japanese professor Sumio Lijima, working for NEC company, used fullerenes for creating carbon nanotubes with diameter of 0.8 nm. On the basis of these we manufacture materials 100 times stronger than steel. We still have to learn to make these tubes longer - their dimensions are directly related to the strength of manufactured materials. In addition, there is a possibility of synthesizing out of the nanotubes various nanomechanisms with hooks and gears.

1991. A computer specialist Warren Robinet and a chemist Stan Williams, working at the University of North Carolina, manufactured a nanomanipulator - a robot the size of a man, attached to an atomic microscope and manipulated through a virtual reality interface. With its help, an operator, manipulating with individual atoms, could feel a resistance multiplied many times from a modified substance. This speeded up work. To make applied nanogadgets without such an installation was not possible up to that time.

1991. The first nanotechnological program of National Scientific Fund started in the USA. A similar activity was undertaken by the government of Japan. However, in Europe a serious government support of such investigations started only in 1997.

1997. Eric Drexler announced that by 2020 an industrial assembly of nano gadgets from individual atoms will become possible. Up to this time almost all his predictions came true ahead of time.

1998. Siz Dekker, a Dutch professor of Technological University of Delft, has created a nanotransistor on the basis of nanotubes, using them as molecules. For this he measured, for the first time in the world, the electrical conductivity of such a molecule.

1998. Technology appeared for creating nanotubes of 300 nm.

1998. In Japan a program called "Astroboy" started, aimed at developing nanoelectronics capable of working in the conditions of cosmic cold and heat of several thousand degrees.

1999. American scientists - a professor of physics of Yale University Mark Reed and a professor of chemistry of Rice University James Tour - developed unified principles of manipulating a single molecule and their clusters.

2000. A German physicist Franz Hissible was able to discern subatomic particles in a silicon.

In the same year, his colleague, Robert Magerle, proposed a technology of nanotomography - creation of a 3-D picture of internal structure of a matter with a resolution of 100 nm. The project was financed by Volkswagen company.

2000. The government of the USA started a National Nanotechnological Initiative (NNI). While the budget of the USA allocated 270 million dollars for this, commercial companies invested 10X as much.

2001. Real financing of NNI was 42 million dollars over the planned 422 million.

2002. Siz Dekker has connected a carbon tube to a DNA, thus obtaining a unified nanomechanism.

The financing of NNI is 697 million dollars, which is 97 million over what's planned.

2003. Professor Feng Lu from University of Utah, basing himself on the work of Fraz Hissible, with the help of atomic microscope, has created an image of orbits of electrons through an analysis of their movements around the nucleus.

2003. The NNI was allocated 770 million dollars.

2004. Projected budget for the NNI is 894 million dollars.

c. John von Neumann

Newmann at Los Alamos

John von Newmann at Loas Alamos National Labs

Missing from both accounts is the name of John von Neumann, 1903-1957. Robert Freitas wrote: "The early history of self-replicating systems is the history of von Neumann's thinking on the matter". Self-replicating systems is a key concept for nanorobots, as these machines should reproduce themselves from molecules, as well as make other different systems.

Ancestors of John von Neumann came to Hungary from Russia. John was born in Hungary in a wealthy Jewish family. His father was a lawyer in a bank. Wikipedia writes:

Although he attended school at the grade level appropriate to his age, his father hired private tutors to give him advanced instruction in those areas in which he had displayed an aptitude”, and that was languages and mathematics. “He received his Ph.D. in mathematics(with minors in experimental physics and chemistry) from the University of Budapest at the age of 22[1]. He simultaneously earned his diploma in chemical engineering from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland[1] at the behest of his father, who wanted his son to invest his time in a more financially viable endeavour than mathematics. Between 1926 and 1930 he taught as the youngest privatdozent at the University of Berlin... Von Neumann was invited to Princeton University, New Jersey in 1930, and, subsequently, was one of four people selected for the first faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study (two of the others were Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel), where he was a mathematics professor from its formation in 1933 until his death".

It is curious to note that the idea of self-replicating systems was conceived in Eastern Europe, on the territory of the present-day Ukraine. In Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle's book "Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines", published in 2004, we read:

"Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish mathematician who befriended John von Neumann in 1937 and later gave von Neumann the initial idea for cellular automaton replicators, recalled 'sitting in a coffeehouse in Lwow in 1929, speculating on the possibility of artificial automata reproducing themselves'.”

Von Neumann proposed a universal computer in a tandem with a universal constructor. The universal computer directs the universal constructor. This constructor is a machine which: 1) constructs itself; 2) constructs universal computer, 3) is capable of constructing other things.

In his political convictions, John Neumann was an anti-communist: “During a Senate committee hearing he described his political ideology as "violently anti-communist, and much more militaristic than the norm... He also favored a preemptive nuclear attack on the USSR, believing that doing so could prevent it from obtaining the atomic bomb.[13]

Neumann was an absent-minded, often reading while driving. In his own words: "I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path."[15]

The famous mathematician was a womanizer: “Von Neumann persistently gazed at the legs of young women so much so that female secretaries at Los Alamos often covered up the exposed undersides of their desks with cardboard”.

Next: the present state of nanotechnology

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