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Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard P. Feynman may have had the idea for nanotechnology before anyone else. On December 29, 1959, Feynman gave an after-dinner lecture at a meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology. In this speech, titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Feynman expressed the idea of "manipulating and controlling things on a small scale," adding that he was not referring just to miniaturization, but the ability to do things such as writing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin. He explained how it could be done by shrinking everything down to 1/25,000 of its original size without losing resolution. He suggested that this kind of technology could even be used to shrink the world's collection of books onto one pamphlet. This would all be possible, he said, because everything would still be measurable even though it would be at the atomic level.

Although Feynman never mentioned the word "nanotechnology," he did point out how we could build microscopic cars and incredibly small computers—even miniature surgeons who could go inside our bodies to do their work. Many scientists at the time took his ideas as a joke, especially considering Feynman's known sense of humor. However, he offered a $1,000 reward for the first person to shrink a page to 1/25,000 of its size and show that it is still readable through an electron microscope. In 1985, a graduate student at Stanford named Tom Newman used an electron beam to write the first page of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, at 1/25,000 its original size on the head of a pin. He put together a package with the pin and the evidence supporting his work and mailed it to Feynman. Within two weeks, Feynman sent back a check.

Many scientists are still amazed at how accurate Feynman's predictions were. In his original speech, Feynman emphasized the vast possibilities that exist when working in a very small world. He wanted to push people forward with his theories so that in the future, "When they look back at this age," he said, "they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction."

—Emily MacDowell