AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIX , No. 1, Spring 2007


Exploring Nanotechnology’s Hidden History
by W. Patrick McCray

Historians have paid scant attention to nanotechnology and nanoscience research, despite the fact that in the United States alone, government and corporate sources have invested well over $10 billion in it since 2001. The lack of rigorous historical analysis is unfortunate, for anticipating future societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology will rest on a coherent and comprehensive understanding of its origins and current contexts. Nanotechnology can be seen less as a revolutionary break with the past than as part of the effort, familiar to historians, to develop technological solutions to social and economic problems. Developing this interpretation will demand an understanding of nano’s history at multiple levels of analysis–research fields, instrumentation, individual contributions, national and state policy, and as an example of a technologically-based social movement with competing utopian and dystopian viewpoints.

To help address such issues, in October 2005 the National
Science Foundation allocated $33 million to “inform the public and explore the implications of nanotechnology.” About a third of this funding went to establish two national Centers for Nanotechnology in Society: one at Arizona State University and the other, which I co-direct, at the University of California, Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB).

One of the main research initiatives at the CNS-UCSB is exploring the historical context of what may best be called the “nano-enterprise.” Our working group is composed of myself, Timothy Lenoir and Eric Gianella at Duke University, Cyrus Mody at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and Mary Ingram-Waters, who is one of several graduate research fellows funded by the CNS-UCSB. Together, we are looking into key aspects of nanotechnology’s history including the evolution of state and federal policies, the role of grant officers in shaping research programs, and the importance of novel research areas such as spintronics and molecular electronics.

Our research takes advantage of diverse methodologies and sources. These include collecting oral histories (thanks, in part, to funding from the AIP Center for History of Physics) and deploying sophisticated data mapping and visualization tools developed by Lenoir. More traditional resources are also brought to bear, including scientific publications, conference reports and so forth. However, already I can note one unfortunate and disturbing trend—nanoscience, like almost all 21st-century techno-scientific endeavors, relies on communications that are ephemeral in nature (web-published reports, e-mail, etc.). The relative paucity of correspondence and other essential documentation presents a serious challenge to all scholars and archivists attempting to understand this area of scientific research and one can only imagine the problem worsening with time.

Nanotechnology’s history already has a “standard model” which is often used to frame general articles. This begins with Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 after-dinner speech to members of the American Physical Society (“Plenty of Room at the Bottom”). The standard model continues with G.K. Binnig and H. Rohrer’s development of the scanning tunneling microscope, for which they received the 1986 Nobel prize, Richard Smalley’s 1996
Nobel prize for helping discover buckyballs, and—ta-da!—the passage of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000.

While this story provides a tidy historical trajectory replete with famous scientists and top-shelf prizes, there are other, untold or less examined histories of nanotechnology. Already scholars have begun to debunk the familiar narrative by pointing out that Feynman’s speech had little effect in galvanizing nanoscience research. Another example of a key but neglected item in nano’s history is the development of molecular beam epitaxy. Perfected by scientists like John Arthur and Al Cho at Bell Laboratories in the 1970s, this technique allows for the precise fabrication of new materials and nano-structures. Although MBE is now four decades old and is an established part of the solid-state physicist’s toolkit, it doesn’t typically appear in the standard model of nano history.

Another facet of the history that scholars at the CNS-UCSB are looking into is the role of public imagination in fostering policies for nano research. As Howard McCurdy showed in his excellent 1997 book Space and the American Imagination, public visions of future technologies play an important role in establishing support or opposition for policy. In the nano realm, futurist groups took to cultivating an environment of technological optimism, within which political and social acceptance of new (and sometimes “fringe”) technologies like nano could flourish. Just as interesting is the fact that some futurist groups initially devoted to promoting the space frontier in the 1970s shifted to pro-technology activism, including nano, in the 1980s.

Nanotechnology’s advocates have pointed out how the subject brings together scientists from disparate disciplines to work on common research topics. In the same fashion, the historical context of nanotechnology offers tremendous research prospects for historians along with opportunities to collaborate with scholars from fields like sociology, economics and anthropology. In view of the continued enthusiasm, media coverage, and funding that nanotechnology attracts, historians of science and technology have an opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to challenge the “standard model” and establish a more nuanced understanding of nanotechnology history, how it connects to other bodies of scholarship, and how it may inform the public and policy makers.

For further information contact Patrick McCray,

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