Making history

Generally, it is considered that the concept of nanotechnology firstly arose in 1959 from the hand of Richard P. Feynman in the famous conference There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, where he imagines a field in which little had been done but in which he predicted a huge number of technical applications. In his own words, this was “the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale”. Although it is in 1974 when Norio Taniguchi starts strictly speaking about nanoscience and nanotechnology it was not until 1986 that Eric Drexler popularizises these concepts. In Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Drexler presented his futuristic visions about the opportunities and threats of nanotechnology giving rise to a renewed interest within the scientific community.

An alternative way to consider the origin of the nanotechnology would go back to the appearance of the first particle with nanometric dimensions and, of course, nanomaterials have been around throughout history in numerous elements. Glasses, ceramics and stained glasses are among the oldest and most famous but swords, filters and photographic developers are other examples of the usefulness of nanotechnology before its birth as a scientific discipline.

If we did a chronology of the nanoscopic elements in the past, we would start with the famous Lycurgus cup from the 4th century in Rome. Romans also made use of natural zeolites with nanometric pores, for water filtration purposes. Among other famous examples are the Luster ceramics from the 9th to the 17th century first produced in the Islamic world and later expanded around Europe, which contain metallic nanoparticles that give them a characteristic glow. On the other side of the Atlantic, nanotechnology can be found in the Maya blue, already since the 8th century used in sculptures, paintings and others by the Mayan and Aztec cultures.

Beyond the ornamental applications, we also find other objects such as the famous Damascus swords between the 13th and 18th centuries that obtain their mechanical properties from the content of carbon nanotubes and cementite nanowires or the use of silver nanoparticles as an important element for the development of photography in the early 19th century.

In 1857 Michael Faraday, after accidentally creating a red solution with gold pieces, starts to study the synthesis and optical properties of colloidal gold nanoparticles, the red gold. During the first half of the 20th century, scientific contributions accelerate considerably and a large number of scientists help laying the groundwork for modern science, which will be fundamental to understand current nanotechnology.

In microscopy, Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska create the first electron microscope in 1931, soon followed by the first field emission microscope by Erwin Müller in 1936. John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain were responsible for starting the race for information technologies with the invention of the first electronic transistor in 1947. In biology, a great revolution began in 1953 with the announcement of the discovery of the structure of the DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson thanks to the previous work performed by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. In the field of chemistry, the work performed by Katharine Blodgett and Irving Langmuir about the surface properties is fundamental to understand surface tension and self-assembling, whereas the carbon queen, Mildred Dresselhaus, plays a key role in the discovery of the properties and potential of nanotubes, fullerenes and graphene.

In the second half of the 20th century, especially from the 1980s, nanotechnology began to establish itself as a discipline of study with the discovery of a large number of new nanomaterials and the development of new techniques of analysis, microscopy and fabrication. Today, it has become one of the main scientific disciplines leading the new industrial and knowledge revolution that will accompany us throughout the 21st century.