In his 1959 lecture given at Caltech Richard Feynman, a world-renown Nobel laureate physicist and luminary outlined the prospects of miniaturization of mechanical and electronic devices that greatly surpassed the state of the art in those days. While engineers spoke of microns, Feynman suggested going all the way down to molecular sizes and distances. The lecture's title was "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". It has since become a landmark and epitome of a new branch of science and engineering - nanotechnology.
As it often happens with groundbreaking work, it took some time for Feynman's fantasies and predictions to sink in and to flourish. The 1981 invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) opened wide the gates to the nanoworld. The STM allowed not only viewing the intricacies of the molecular structure of matter, but also the manipulation of individual atoms.
Soon after, in 1985, scientists at Rice University discovered fullerenes - regular molecular structures composed entirely of carbon atoms. They owe their name to the close similarity to some of the revolutionary designs of Buckminster Fuller - American architect with a taste for complex geometric forms. Deeper investigations into the topic soon led to many different variants of fullerenes, among other the now well-known carbon nanotubes.
But conceptually all this was a scaled-down, meticulous version of manual labor by the scientists and it seemed hard for nanomaterials to ever become cost-effective. Until in 1986 Eric Drexler published his book "Engines of Creation", where he explored the idea of molecular assemblers - autonomous nanomachines able to replicate themselves (similar to the early ideas by John von Neumann), which could act in a coordinated manner and serve as a sort of factory for the nanoscale world. This concept led to a growing concern among technologists and scientists about the possible worst-case scenarios of what would happen if such machines turned loose.
More recent times saw the discovery of graphene - single atom layer of carbon - and a revolutionary way of obtaining it, which won its discoverers the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. With its manifold technical applications, graphene is the current hottest topic in nanotechnology. With possible uses ranging from high-speed electronics to efficient energy storage and super-durable components it may soon become ubiquitous in our daily lives.
Today the story of nanotechnology is far from over and we see scientific breakthroughs on an almost regular basis. With growing financial viability and ever more sophisticated engineering processes we're most certainly nearing a true nanotech revolution on a global scale.