Mar 05, 2023 I Brent Swancer

The Time a Simple Bet Sparked the Field of Nanotechnology

One very exciting and often controversial field of study in recent times is that of what is called nanotechnology. Dealing with the use of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale for industrial and other purposes, it deals with crafting materials and even machines so small that they are invisible to the eye, with the current definition putting true nanotech as a minuscule one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm). Nanotechnology has come to pervade fields of science as diverse as surface science, medicine, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, energy storage, engineering, microfabrication, and molecular engineering, but where did all of this come from and how was it all kicked off? For that we have to go back to the 1950s, when the whole notion of such things was not even really a thing, at best firmly within the realm of science fiction. 

The American Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Phillips Feynman is a name many might not be immediately familiar with, but in the world of science he is considered to be one of the greatest physicists of our time. Known for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics, quantum computing and particle physics, he was a major contributor to the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb during World War II, a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and held the Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). His scientific credentials are impeccable, his contributions to physics invaluable, and one whole new field that he helped to pioneer is that of nanotechnology, although how it came to be so is rather unconventional to say the least. This is where the American engineer Bill McLellan comes into the picture.

Richard Feynman

McLellan graduated from Caltech in 1950 with a major in mechanical engineering, and for most of his career was involved with building electric-current meters called galvanometers, before returning to Caltech as an engineer for astronomical telescopes. It was during this time that he became acquainted with the work of Feynman, who at the time was a beloved professor there. At the time Feynman was pondering what was the infancy of nanotechnology, theorizing on how we could make machines smaller than the human eye can see. He brought it up in December of 1959 at a casual after-dinner talk to the west coast section of the American Physical Society, where he said in his speech:

Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin? If information is encoded in binary form - as strings of noughts and ones, just as it is in computers - and if each 'bit' of information is composed of a heap of 100 atoms, then all the books in the world could be written inside a cube 1/200th of an inch wide. Computing machines are very large, they fill rooms. Why can't we make them very small, make them of little wires, little elements - and by little, I mean little.

The talk was entitled “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” and at the time this was purely the stuff of science fiction, high-concept mumbo jumbo way ahead of its time, so it kind of blew the minds of everyone present. At the time, Feynman was basically talking about the impossible. No one thought it could be done, and even Feynman didn’t seriously believe it would be done within his lifetime, so it was almost half-jokingly that he added, “It is my intention, to offer a prize of $1,000 to the first guy who makes an operating electric motor which is only 1/64th inch cubed." This was met with chuckles and raised eyebrows all around, and since Feynman was well known for his practical jokes and his jovial, prankish personality many probably thought he was just joking around, and he likely never thought he would have to pay. However, for McLellan it was no joke, and he decided to take Feynman up on it.

For all of his engineering know-how, of all the people at that talk McLellan was probably one of the least qualified to actually take him up the offer. After all, he had absolutely no experience with motors in general, let alone ones as small as Feynman was talking about, no clue what he was doing. Nevertheless, he got to work on his motor, toiling away in his free time and on lunch breaks using laughably crude tools including a simple toothpick, tweezers and a microscope, going through trial and error again and again basically learning how to do this from scratch. McLellan would say of Feynman’s challenge:

He (Feynman) really didn't believe it could be done. I thought, my gosh, nobody's done it. Of course, when I got into it I realized why: they were smart, it was too much work. But in general they didn't have a clue how to proceed. I'd never designed a motor, but I knew how they worked. I knew how to make it and I wondered why nobody did. Most of the galvo technicians had been watchmakers, so I learnt from them.

Bill McLellan at work

McLellan would spend the next two and a half months painstakingly building his little motor, and there were times when he almost gave up, the prize money to forever go uncollected, but he diligently kept at it. In the end, after countless hours spent peering into his microscope and beset by numerous setbacks and bouts of frustration, McLellan was finally done. In the end, he had created a 250-microgram 2000-rpm electric motor consisting of 13 separate parts, measuring just less than half a millimeter across, about the size of a speck of sand, and with wires just 1/80th of a millimeter wide, which is thinner than a human hair. In the meantime, Feynman was still convinced it would be a long time before anyone got close to something to his specifications. Indeed, he had already had several others try and fail, so when McLellan walked into his office he was incredulous to say the least. McLellan explains of what happened:

He'd seen a lot of cranks come in with motors, who didn't understand the challenge, and I brought in a big box, and he said 'Oh, here's another one of them'. And I opened my wooden box up and there was my microscope. He said, 'Uh-oh, nobody else brought a microscope.' So I set it up, and he played with it for a while. Finally, he admitted I had done it. He wrote me a cheque, and in the letter he said it met the specifications.

Considering that this was in 1960, at the time it was considered to be a sensation. McLellan had achieved what even physicists didn’t think would be possible in this lifetime, or even the next, and he had done it in just a few months and with no prior experience with motors. He appeared on television shows with his invention and gave lectures at Caltech on how he had done it. The achievement brought him fame, and it would be years before anyone would even get close to what he had managed to do in basically his garage with tweezers and a toothpick. Sadly, most of the total of 10 motors he made were accidentally destroyed by overzealous observers who accidentally squashed them like a bug, but there is still one on display at Caltech to this day, with other copies of the micromotor also in the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History, the Smithsonian, and the London Science Museum, and although there is no effective practical use for the micromotor, the invention is still considered to be a pioneer in the then-novel field of nanotechnology

Of course in more modern times with the level of nanotechnology we have now, McLellan’s motor is considered to be absolutely massive. After all, we live in an era now where there are molecular motors using nanoscale metal blades measuring just 10 nanometers across, but McLellan’s invention is unique because while these molecular motors are small, they were taken from nature using an enzyme called ATP synthase rather than built from scratch. McLellan would go on to serve as a consultant for Caltech's Astronomy department until his death in 2011, and he is to this day considered to be the father of nanotechnology. In recent years, nanotechnology has remained controversial. On the one hand, it offers promising developments for creating many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in nanomedicine, nanoelectronics, biomaterials energy production, and consumer products, and could be the wave of the future, yet on the other hand there are critics who believe it could spell our doom. Whichever way it goes, there will come a time when future generations look back and see that it all started as a half-joking bet at a dinner party. .

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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