To really understand the big picture of nanotechnology, it is helpful to review the timeline of discoveries that brought us to the current understanding of the science. The history forms the foundation to understand the current state of the science and commercial potential.

TEM: See things at the nanoscale

Nanoparticles have been used by people for thousands of years. They just didn’t know it. But having materials that are all around us behave in a certain way does not a science make. In the case of nanotechnology, being able to see those particles was the key to unlocking the huge potential of the nanoscale world.

The first big breakthrough in seeing nanoparticles came in 1931, when German scientists Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll built the first transmission electron microscope, or TEM. This device has several hundred times the power of a traditional microscope, which uses light for magnification. A TEM uses a focused beam of electrons, instead of light, to pass through and magnify an object by a factor of up to about 1,000,000.

In the 1930s scientists had reached the limitations of light microscopes, which can resolve only objects greater than about 200 nm, which is slightly less than the wavelength of visible light. They needed to view structures such as the interior of organic cells, which require the resolution of structures of only a few nanometers in size. To be able to view such objects, they worked to develop the TEM.

The transmission electron microscope and its subsequent improvements enabled researchers to see the structure of nanoscale objects. They could now explore the structure of organic molecules that make up the human body, such as proteins, and inorganic materials, such as metals, by examining a cross section of a sample.

This capability made possible advances in areas ranging from electronics and medicine to manufacturing. But these advances weren’t yet collectively defined as nanotechnology.

Vision of nanotech as a scientific field

Some consider that the general concept of nanotechnology started with a talk that Richard P. Feynman, an American theoretical physicist, gave in 1959 at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). In that talk, titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Feynman offered up the possibility of working with and controlling the atoms and molecules that make up matter, which is essentially the bottom-up approach to nanotechnology.

Feynman was no one-trick pony; he also essentially reinvented quantum electrodynamics, which relates to how light and matter interact at the atomic level. His work changed the world’s understanding of how light is absorbed and emitted by electrons and how light is involved when electrons repel each other. Feynman was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for this work.

People have debated whether Feynman was really instrumental in bringing the idea of working with matter at the nanoscale to the forefront. The scientific community didn’t seem to take much notice of his talk in the 20 years or so after he gave it. It wasn’t until a seminal work on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler, came out in 1986 that Feynman’s talk received this kind of credit.

Feynman’s speech, in which he asked, "What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?", did a good job of stating the possibilities of the nanoscale world, and so it marks a notable point in nanotechnology’s timeline. In addition, Feynman’s interest in nanotechnology and his stature in the scientific community played a role in securing nanotechnology funding years after his talk.