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History of Nanotechnology

The era of nanotechnology is firmly upon us. We now have the tools and techniques in our grasp to manipulate matter in ways that seemed fantastical little over a half century ago.

Although we may think of nanotechnology as a contemporary subject, the use of nanomaterials in human objects and paraphernalia can be traced back to ancient times. We will begin by defining nanotechnology, before turning to look its history, the tools that have advanced the field in twentieth century and beyond, and some key milestones in the field.

Defining Nanotechnology

Before we begin, let us first distinguish between nanoscience and nanotechnology. The Royal Society (2004) defined nanoscience as: the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale; and nanotechnologies as the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometre scale.

The nanometer scale deals with structures, devices and systems ranging between 1–100nm. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre or one-millionth of a millimetre. At 10-9 the nanometer scale sits between that of picometer 10-12 and micrometer 10-6. To help visualise this sort of scale, a human hair is approximately 60–80,000 nanometres in diameter, while the DNA double helix has a radius of 1nm.

Nano-sized particles can be categorized into three types:

  1. Natural
  2. Incidental
  3. Engineered

Hybrid materials, known as nanocomposites, can be engineered with modern techniques to enhance the desirable characteristics of materials, for example to increase flexibility.

History of Nanomaterials: From Prehistory to the Modern Age

Prehistoric use of nanomaterials can be traced back to Egypt, Indonesia and China. In ancient Egypt, the soot of oil lamps was used to make black pigments for writing on papyrus. Around the time of 2575 BC, the Egyptians were already producing the synthetic pigment Egyptian blue.

As a scientific subject ‘nanoscience’ began with the ancient Greeks. Indeed, the word nano is Greek for “dwarf.” In the 5 century BC, the philosopher Democritus, nowadays best known for the atomic theory of the universe, questioned whether matter was continuous and could be infinitely divided into smaller and smaller pieces, or alternatively made up of tiny, indivisible particles.

Roman artifacts from the 4 century BC containing nanoparticles can nowadays be observed in the British Museum. In the Americans, nanomaterials were used by advanced Mayan civilisations. Maya Blue was fabricated in the city of Chichen Itza in 800 AD. It is a brightly coloured azure pigment and a composite of nanomaterials comprising indigo dye combined (chemically) with clay nanopores. This combination renders the dye resistant to corrosion.

Between the 9th and 17th centuries AD, glimmering ceramic glazes were used in Islamic countries. During the 10th century cementite nanowires and carbon nanotubes were used to give strength to wootz steel produced in India. In medieval Europe, nanoparticles were widely used to make stained-glass windows and in 16th century Italy they were used in Renaissance pottery. Meanwhile, between the 13th and 18th centuries Ottoman techniques were used to produce “Damascus” steel blades containing carbon nanotubes.

Faraday Experiments with Nanoparticles

In 1857 in a basement laboratory at the Royal Institution, London, physicist Michael Faraday mounted gold leaves onto microscope slides and, in what was an accidental discovery, he noticed a ruby coloured liquid upon washing them. The change in expected colour was due to the small size of the particles in solution. The finding led him to experiment further with the dispersion of gold nanoparticles suspended in liquid, subsequently producing different-coloured solutions under certain lighting conditions. Gold nanoparticles are an area of great interest in many areas of research, such as in cancer treatment. Gold nanoparticle size can be easily characterized by their absorbance profile, which can be measured using simple UV-Vis spectroscopy.

Tools of Nanotechnology in the Twentieth Century

To visualise nanoparticles and better manipulate their characteristics, modern microscopy has proven crucial to the progress of nanotechnology. The twentieth century witnessed monumental developments in microscopical technology.

The traditional light microscope has been around since the 17th century. By the early 20th century, it had reached the theoretical limit of resolution ––around the width of a human hair strand. To surmount the limitations, a new kind of microscope was invented; one that used electrons instead of light.

Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM)

In 1931 Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll invented the Transmission Electron Microscope (and later won the Nobel Prize). This microscope promised to resolve matter to the atomic level of detail. At least in theory. But in practice, the TEM was constrained by the tools and techniques associated with its use, as well as by its own design. The microscope has since evolved. In 1991, Sumio Iijima and colleagues were able to visualise graphitic tubes or carbon nanotubes using TEM.

Scanning Tunnel Microscope (STM)

In 1981 two scientists, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, working at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, invented the Scanning Tunnel Microscope. The advent of STM enabled scientists and engineers to visualise and manipulate atoms. In 1986 Binnig and Rohrer won the Nobel Prize in physics. Later on, in 1990 Don Eigler and Erhad Schweizer, also both working at IBM, used STM to manipulate individual xenon atoms on a single-crystal nickel surface to create the “IBM” logo.

Atomic Force Microscope (AFM)

The advent of the STM in turn led to another new kind of instrument, the Atomic Force Microscope. AFM is used to scan nanostructures with a probe equipped with nanometre- wide tip. Movement is directed by atomic forces between the surface of the tip and the sample.

As demonstrated by Faraday, the properties of nanoparticles can differ from those at larger scales. There are two underlying reasons why this occurs:

  1. Nanomaterials have a larger surface area comparative to the same mass of materials produced in a larger form. Materials are more chemically reactive at the nanoscale, which effects their strength and electrical properties. This applies even to materials that are inert in larger forms.
  2. Quantum effects come into play at the nanoscale affecting the optical, electrical, and magnetic behaviour of materials.

The Age of Nanotechnology from Feynman to Nano-fabrication

Feynman the Father of Modern Nanotechnology

Richard Feynman is considered the father of modern nanotechnology. The American physicist and Nobel Prize laureate first introduced the idea of nanotechnology in 1959. At the annual meeting of the American Physical Society held at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Feynman presented the lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Here he conjectured on the notion of using machines to make smaller machines all down to the molecular level. Although seemingly fantastical at the time, Feynman asked: “why can’t we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?” The speech coincided with the advent of the integrated circuit spurring progress in computing.

Taniguchi Coins Term Nanotechnology

In 1974, Norio Taniguchi, a Japanese scientist based at the Tokyo Science University, Japan, presented a paper to the Society of Precision Engineering titled “On the Basic Concept of Nanotechnology.” Here he talked about the ability to engineer materials at nanometer levels. In the 1970s, electron beam lithography was in use at IBM, creating nanostructures and devices in the 40-70 nm range. The discovery of silicon microchips was the major driving force toward miniaturisation came from the electronics industry and a push for smaller, faster and more complex electronic devices.

Drexler and the Coming Era of Nanotechnology

With the advent of STM, the modern era of nanotechnology was truly underway. In 1986, MIT trained engineer K. Eric Drexler published the first book on nanotechnology “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.” It led to the theory of “molecular engineering” becoming more widely known. Drexler also warned of the negatives of nanotechnology by discussing concepts like autonomous self-replication, which he called “grey-goo.” Later books on nanotechnology have continued to explore similar such ideas like that of the technological singularity, first conceived of by John von Neumann.

Building on biological principles

Much progress in nanotechnology has been inspired by the science of molecular biology. The natural processes involved in building and assembling biological structures involve a so-called ‘bottom-up’ approach. Biological materials like proteins, which made up of find individual monomeric particles called amino acids, are synthesised in a process involving the ‘molecular machines’ of the cell.

The development of nanotechnology has adopted this bottom-up approach, inspired by biological processes, in addition to an oppositely oriented ‘top-down’ approach, in which larger materials are broken down into smaller nanoparticles. The mini table given below gives examples of how material technological objects and functions have been founded on the biological principles of cellular life (table 1).

Table 1: Comparison between macroscopic and microscopic components.



Molecular example

Struts, beams, casings

Transmit force, hold position

Microtubules, cellulose


Move, fluids

Flagella, membrane proteins

Production lines

Construct devices

Enzyme systems, ribosomes

Source: Drexler, 1981, p. 5276.

In 1991, Drexler, Peterson and Pergamit published “Unbounding the Future: the Nanotechnology Revolution” in which they used the terms “nanobots” or “assemblers” for nano-processes in medical applications. This helped spur the rise of nanomedicine. Meanwhile nanoscience, in general, recieved generous investment in the 1990s. This buoyancy led to revolutionary new discoveries such as the existence of carbon nanotubes, for example. The ability to construct products with molecular precision revolutionised manufacturing. By the 2000s, nanomaterials were being used in consumer products such as wearable devices and clothing materials.

Modern fabrication techniques used in both nanoscience and technology involve:

  • Thin film fabrication
  • Lithography
  • Engraving

The term encompassing the use of techniques at nanoscale depths is nanofabrication. Alternately, the term “supertechnology” is used and sometimes “extreme technology.” Manipulating materials at the nanoscale level has led to advances in efficiency and durability not realisable with traditional techniques. Devices and products can now be made much smaller, more lightweight and more flexible and this progress touches upon a range of industries from nanomedicine to microelectronics.

In the 21st century, nanotechnology is a truly interdisciplinary pursuit touching nearly every field of science, including, but not limited to, physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science and engineering. The above given definitions of nanoscience and nanotechnology were thus devised to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of these still emerging fields.


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Contributing Authors

Written by

Dr. Nicola Williams

Professional Science Writer

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