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Modern Times

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on August 25, 2008 at 9:15:55 am

The conventional narrative for a nanotechnology origin story starts with US physicist Richard Feynman and his famous 1959 lecture to the American Physical Society in 1959, titled 'There's lots of room at the bottom' where he speculated about working with atoms and molecules directly to store information, create materials, and many of the applications currently being investigated in nanotechnology labs. (For more about the science, under Jump joints, click on The Science behind Nanotech) Next, a Japanese engineer named Norio Taniguchi in his paper for the Japan Society for Precision Engineering in 1974 coined the phrase nanotechnology.[1] Very quickly, the new science idea becomes a technology. This is further emphasized by K. Eric Drexler a US engineer who wrote the popular science book, Engines of Creation,  lauding the coming nanotechnology age. (The book has haunted Drexler since its publication in 1986.).[2]


The basics are not disputed however, it has been pointed out that science fiction writers got there first. Contrast this passage from the widely believed 'orign' text for nanotechnology 'There‚Äôs lots of room at the bottom',


When I make my first set of slave ``hands'' at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of ``hands,'' and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred ``hands'' at the 1/16th size.[3]


with this description of Robert Heinlein's 1942 short story,


In Waldo, Heinlein (1942/1965) described a process of molecular manipulation, in which smaller and smaller devices are created by Waldo to enable him to "directly manipulate microscopic materials by means of his own human hands."[4]


Nobody can prove that Feyman ever read 'Waldo' or any of the other science fiction stories such as Theodore Sturgeon's 'Microcosmic God' (1941), Eric Frank Fussell's 'Hobbyist' (1947), James Blish's 'Surface Tension' (1952), or Philip K. Dick's 'Autofac' (1953), which seem to presage nanotechnology. But, Feyman's friend, Alfbert R. Hibbs, a senior staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is reputed to have read 'Waldo' and discussed with him the period before the legendary, 'There's lots of room at the bottom' talk. (For more about the writers, under Jump joints, click on Storytellers create nano)[5]


Jump back

Nano through the Ages


Jump points

Ancient World 

Middle Ages


Jump joints

Storytellers create nano

The Science behind Nanotech


  1. Wikipedia (n. d.) Nanotechnology. [Online essay] (Accessed April 18, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanotechnology)
  2. Drexler, K. E. (1987) Engines of Creation. (originally published 1986, paperback edition 1987) New York, New York, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing.
  3. Feynman, R. P. (1959) There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom; an Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics. [Online transcript of talk given at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, December 29, 1959 at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)]. (Accessed April 15, 2007 from http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/feynman.html)
  4. Bowman, D.M., Hodge, G.A., and Binks, P. (2007) Are We Really the Prey? Nanotechnology as Science and Science Fiction. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, December 2007, vol. 27 (6), pp. 435-445.
  5. Milburn, C. (2004), Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science. Nanoculture: Implications of the New Technoscience. [e-book] Bristol, UK and Portland Oregon, USA, Intellect Books.

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