The existence of intermolecular forces was first postulated by Johannes Diderik van der Waals in 1873. However, Nobel laureate Hermann Emil Fischer developed supramolecular chemistry's philosophical roots. In 1894, Fischer suggested that enzyme-substrate interactions take the form of a "lock and key", the fundamental principles of molecular recognition and host-guest chemistry. In the early twentieth century noncovalent bonds were understood in gradually more detail, with the hydrogen bond being described by Latimer and Rodebush in 1920.
The use of these principles led to an increasing understanding of protein structure and other biological processes. For instance, the important breakthrough that allowed the elucidation of the double helical structure of DNA occurred when it was realized that there are two separate strands of nucleotides connected through hydrogen bonds. The use of noncovalent bonds is essential to replication because they allow the strands to be separated and used to template new double stranded DNA. Concomitantly, chemists began to recognize and study synthetic structures based on noncovalent interactions, such as micelles and microemulsions.
Eventually, chemists were able to take these concepts and apply them to synthetic systems. The breakthrough came in the 1960s with the synthesis of the crown ethers by Charles J. Pedersen. Following this work, other researchers such as Donald J. Cram, Jean-Marie Lehn and
Fritz Vögtle became active in synthesizing shape- and ion-selective receptors, and throughout the 1980s research in the area gathered a rapid pace with concepts such as mechanically interlocked molecular architectures emerging.
The importance of supramolecular chemistry was established by the 1987 Nobel Prize for Chemistry which was awarded to Donald J. Cram, Jean-Marie Lehn, and Charles J. Pedersen in recognition of their work in this area. The development of selective "host-guest" complexes in particular, in which a host molecule recognizes and selectively binds a certain guest, was cited as an important contribution.
In the 1990s, supramolecular chemistry became even more sophisticated, with researchers such as James Fraser Stoddart developing molecular machinery and highly complex self-assembled structures, and Itamar Willner developing sensors and methods of electronic and biological interfacing. During this period, electrochemical and photochemical motifs became integrated into supramolecular systems in order to increase functionality, research into synthetic self-replicating system began, and work on molecular information processing devices began. The emerging science of nanotechnology also had a strong influence on the subject, with building blocks such as fullerenes, nanoparticles, and dendrimers becoming involved in synthetic systems.