The concepts that seeded nanotechnology were first discussed in 1959 by renowned physicist
Richard Feynman in his talk
There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, in which he described the possibility of synthesis via direct manipulation of atoms. The term "nano-technology" was first used by
Norio Taniguchi in 1974, though it was not widely known.
Comparison of Nanomaterials Sizes
Inspired by Feynman's concepts,
K. Eric Drexler used the term "nanotechnology" in his 1986 book
Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, which proposed the idea of a nanoscale "assembler" which would be able to build a copy of itself and of other items of arbitrary complexity with atomic control. Also in 1986, Drexler co-founded
The Foresight Institute (with which he is no longer affiliated) to help increase public awareness and understanding of nanotechnology concepts and implications.
Thus, emergence of nanotechnology as a field in the 1980s occurred through convergence of Drexler's theoretical and public work, which developed and popularized a conceptual framework for nanotechnology, and high-visibility experimental advances that drew additional wide-scale attention to the prospects of atomic control of matter. In the 1980s, two major breakthroughs sparked the growth of nanotechnology in modern era.
First, the invention of the
scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 which provided unprecedented visualization of individual atoms and bonds, and was successfully used to manipulate individual atoms in 1989. The microscope's developers
Gerd Binnig and
Heinrich Rohrer at
IBM Zurich Research Laboratory received a
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.
Quate and Gerber also invented the analogous
atomic force microscope that year.
, also known as the
, is a representative member of the
. Members of the fullerene family are a major subject of research falling under the nanotechnology umbrella.
Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 by
Richard Smalley, and
Robert Curl, who together won the 1996
Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
 C60 was not initially described as nanotechnology; the term was used regarding subsequent work with related
graphene tubes (called
carbon nanotubes and sometimes called Bucky tubes) which suggested potential applications for nanoscale electronics and devices.
In the early 2000s, the field garnered increased scientific, political, and commercial attention that led to both controversy and progress. Controversies emerged regarding the definitions and potential implications of nanotechnologies, exemplified by the
Royal Society's report on nanotechnology.
 Challenges were raised regarding the feasibility of applications envisioned by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, which culminated in a public debate between Drexler and Smalley in 2001 and 2003.
Meanwhile, commercialization of products based on advancements in nanoscale technologies began emerging. These products are limited to bulk applications of
nanomaterials and do not involve atomic control of matter. Some examples include the
Silver Nano platform for using
silver nanoparticles as an antibacterial agent,
nanoparticle-based transparent sunscreens,
carbon fiber strengthening using silica nanoparticles, and carbon nanotubes for stain-resistant textiles.
Governments moved to promote and
fund research into nanotechnology, such as in the U.S. with the
National Nanotechnology Initiative, which formalized a size-based definition of nanotechnology and established funding for research on the nanoscale, and in Europe via the European
Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development.
By the mid-2000s new and serious scientific attention began to flourish. Projects emerged to produce nanotechnology roadmaps
 which center on atomically precise manipulation of matter and discuss existing and projected capabilities, goals, and applications.