Nanoscience is a field of science that is often given a specific starting date – 1959. It was an idea that had to wait for new tools to make it possible. However, nanoscience as we know it today has still grown out of scientific knowledge accumulated over many years before 1959.

Find out more about nanoscience in this timeline.

1857 - First nanogold

Michael Faraday made colloidal gold, a liquid containing tiny particles of gold (what we now call nanoparticles). The liquid was red, not gold coloured, and he realised that this was due to the minute size of the particles. Different colours made by gold in stained glass had been used since medieval times, but Faraday was the first to realise the cause.

1959 - A new field of physics

Physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk called ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom: an invitation to enter a new field of physics’, at the California Institute of Technology. He suggested that it should be possible to study and manipulate matter at the atomic level, although new tools would be needed.

Read the full text of Richard Feynman’s talk.

1974 - First use of term ‘nanotechnology’

Professor Norio Taniguchi, of Tokyo Science University, invented the term ‘nanotechnology’. His techniques and vision helped stimulate the development of nanotechnology as a subject.

1981 - Scanning tunnelling microscope invented

Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) was a vital tool necessary for ‘seeing’ and manipulating at the nanometre scale. The STM ‘sees’ by measuring mechanical forces of atoms, rather than by using light or electrons like earlier microscopes.

1985 - Discovery of fullerenes

Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley discovered, during basic science research, a particularly strong arrangement of 60 carbon atoms. The same thing is sometimes referred to as C60 or buckyball. Fullerenes are an important structure in nanotechnology.

1986 - Engines of creation

Eric Drexler published an influential book Engines of creation: the coming era of nanotechnology. A driving force in the field, he also drew attention to possible social implications of this new science. Could masses of nanoscale machines get out of control? What would happen to society if every home had a machine that could make whatever you wanted, atom by atom, from cheap raw materials?

1991 - Carbon nanotubes discovered

Sumio Lijima discovered carbon nanotubes, cylinders of fullerenes only a few nanometres wide. With unique properties of strength and conductivity, these structures have become very important in nanotechnology.

2002 - Nanotubes replace wires

Carbon nanotubes were used for the first time to replace metal wires on a microchip, carrying more current in less space.

2005 - A creative year

A year that saw the creation of nanowires, integrated circuits with transistors only 50 nanometres across, and the launch of nanotrousers – ordinary cotton trousers treated with nanoparticles of stain resistant chemicals.

    Published 20 May 2008