How Has Nanotechnology Progressed Over the Years?

Nanotechnology has been around in very primitive forms since the fourth century.
Trevor English

Nanotechnology is on the cutting edge of modern technological advancement. It poses to be the innovative tech that will enable computers and transistors to keep up with the infamous Moore's Law. It will also revolutionize modern medicine and treatment. 

Modern nanotechnology, rather the ability to carefully alter atoms and structures the size of nanometers, is quite different from the types of nanotechnology of the past. However, nanotechnology as a field of human innovation has been around since roughly the 4th century A.D. 

In order to get a better grasp of modern nanotechnology and what spurned our ability to edit atoms and molecules, let's take a look back at all of the advancements and developments made in this industry throughout history. 

The beginning of nanotechnology

Early examples of nanotechnology utilized by humans take the form of innovative materials that were created for specific purposes. The earliest example we have of nanoparticles being used in the material creation of an object is from the Lycurgus Cup, dating back to the 4th century. Colloidal gold and silver were enmeshed into the glass of the cup that allows it to be opaque green and red depending upon where the source of the light that hits it comes from.

Colloidal gold and silver are nanoparticles still utilized today for many of their beneficial properties. That said, this early usage of nanoparticles in the design of glass materials continued on without much innovation for the next several hundred years.

In large part, most of the innovation surrounding nanoparticles was slow, considering that humans had no easy way of examining these particles or even understanding that they existed to a greater extent. 


Between the first usages of nanotechnology and all the way up to the 17th century, nanoparticles were utilized in ceramic glazes, largely in the form of silver or copper nanoparticles. These additives gave the glazes a metallic luster that couldn't be created with any other glazes of the time. 

During this long period of development, craftsmen also gained more knowledge in working with materials that contained nanoparticles to create rich colors in stained glass windows.

Moving away from the fragility of glass and ceramic, between the 13th and 18th centuries, nanoparticles were used in Damascus blade development. Craftsmen that were folding different layers of steel together in the manufacturing process of these blades were unknowingly creating carbon nanotubes, which made the blades incredibly strong while also incredibly light. 

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All of these nanotechnology usages were primarily at the hands of skilled craftsmen, creating the world's best materials through refined processes. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that nanotechnology development really started to accelerate, largely due to new innovations. 

What brought nanotechnology into the modern era 

In 1857, a scientist known as Michael Faraday first discovered colloidal gold. While colloidal gold had been used in materials for centuries before, this was the first time that it was isolated and observed to produce different colors under different lighting conditions. 

It would be another 80 years, though, before anyone would be able to examine these nanoparticles directly.

In 1936, Erwin Müller invented the field emission microscope at the Siemens Research Laboratory. This microscope was the first that allowed imaging of materials at near-atomic levels. This marked a significant step towards being able to examine nanoparticles on the scale in which they exist. 

By 1950, two researchers developed a strong theory behind how to grow colloidal materials in a lab. This was the first step in being able to create nanomaterials in a controlled and determined manner. Ultimately, this led to the use of colloidal materials in paints, films, and paper. 

The next year, however, in 1951, the next microscope discovery to influence the research of nanotechnology was made. Erwin Müller again invented another microscope, this time the field ion microscope. This allowed for the imaging of the way that atoms were arranged, first being used to image tungsten atoms. 

It was soon after these developments of atomic microscopes that engineers discovered ways to manipulate molecular structures. Arthur von Hippel was a researcher at MIT who coined the term molecular engineering. He worked in dielectrics, and other small electronic devices, utilizing molecular engineering in the development of transistors.


The invention of these molecular microscopes marked the biggest shift in nanotechnology development. By 1958, the integrated circuit had been invented with the help of nanotechnology. By 1959, Richard Feynman gave the first lector on technology that operated at the atomic scale, which historically marked the beginning of nanotechnology development.

The first two microscopes developed by Müller were key in kicking off the first nanotechnology work, but in 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer developed the scanning tunneling microscope and changed the field forever. 

This microscope was the first that allowed scientists to see images of atoms, which won the two scientists the Nobel prize in 1986. 

Later in 1986, Gerd Bennig, now working with Calvin Quate and Christoph Gerber, invented the atomic force microscope, which could measure and manipulate materials down to the fraction of a nanometer in size. This meant that engineers and scientists could now examine the forces present in nanoparticles.

All of this development over the last 1500 years led up to the point in 1989 where Don Eigler and Erhard Schweitzer manipulated 35 individual atoms for the first time in history. They made the atoms spell out the IBM logo, marking the beginning of the use of applied nanotechnology, or the manipulation of atoms specifically for our benefit. 

The rest of the story is history. After the development of these microscopes that allowed engineers to watch and manipulate nanoparticles, nanotechnology was brought into the limelight of just what humans were capable of within the realm of technological development.

Today, nanotechnology is at work in many of the industries we closely interact with each and every day, from computers to cosmetics. We can thank the scientists behind these early inventions for all of the nanotechnology innovations that have occurred and all that are sure to come.