Nanotech Turns 20: IBM Moved First Atoms in '89

Twenty years ago, a scientist at IBM gave birth to the nanotechnology movement, with a tiny movement of his own. On September 28, 1989, IBM Fellow Don Eigler used a custom built microscope to jiggle an atom; less than two months later, he was able to spell out the letters IBM using 35 xenon atoms.

“Don Eigler’s accomplishment remains, to this day, one of the most important breakthroughs in nanoscience and technology,” said T.C. Chen, IBM Fellow and vice president, Science & Technology, IBM Research.

“At the time, the implications of this achievement were so far-reaching they almost seemed like science fiction. But now, 20 years later, it’s clear that this was a defining moment that has spawned the kind of research that will eventually bring us beyond CMOS and Moore’s Law, to advance computing to handle the massive volumes of data in the world while using less energy resources.”

Today, the field of nanotechnology — the study of the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale — is a wide-ranging field, with applications in medicine, space travel, computers, energy production, and more. And understanding the properties, movement and interaction of various materials at the nanoscale is essential for the future of these fields, potentially leading to faster, more energy-efficient processors and new levels of personalized health care with targeted treatments and therapies.

Already, the ability to understand and manipulate atoms is leading to new kinds of fabrics, products and more. Ever wonder what makes a raincoat water resistant, or how sunscreen stays put even after swimming? More often than not, it’s nanotechnology at work.