Worlds of David Darling > Children's
Encyclopedia of Science > Nanotechnology > 1. The Incredible Shrinking
MICROMACHINES AND NANOTECHNOLOGY:
The Amazing New World of the Ultrasmall
a book in the Beyond 2000 series by David Darling
1. The Incredible Shrinking Machine
Why should we try to make
machines, or the parts inside them, smaller and smaller? First, miniaturization
allows them to be carried around or moved more easily. A machine that is
portable can be used in many more situations than a big, heavy device. Second,
if a machine is built from very small parts, it can perform highly complicated
functions. Instead of ten working parts, it might have a thousand, or ten
thousand, or more. Because of its complexity, it can do sophisticated tasks
that would be impossible for a simpler machine. Some of today's machines,
such as television sets, compact disk players, and industrial robots, works
in ways that would have seemed almost magical to people living a few centuries
If you were to take apart a device like a car, a personal computer, or a
washing machine, you would find inside a huge collection of bits and pieces,
precisely manufactured and fitted together. We take such complicated products
for granted and rarely think about exactly how they work. But centuries
of effort have gone into developing the techniques of miniaturization on
which our world now depends.
Among the earliest masters of the very small were the Chinese. Elaborate
toys with tiny working parts were built in China as long ago as 200 BC.
Over the next thousand years or so, all kinds of fantastic playthings, from
mechanical flying birds to an otter that caught fish, wee made for the amusement
of the Chinese emperors.
Time in Your Hands
Intricate toys have often been used to show off a craftworker's skill. But
in Europe, especially beginning about the sixteenth century, the desire
to produce small, finely made components stemmed from more practical needs.
One of these needs was for people to be able to tell the time wherever they
happened to be. Before 1500 all clocks were big and unwieldy because they
used heavy weights to drive their machinery. Then a German locksmith invented
the mainspring – a coiled ribbon of steel that, as it unwound, drove
a series of cogs connected to the clock's hands. Being light and compact,
the mainspring allowed timepieces to be built that could easily be carried
around. This advance made possible the development of the pocket watch and,
eventually, the wristwatch.
In 1772, a Swiss clockmaker adapted the most advanced clockwork machinery
of his day to make a lifelike doll that could write messages with a quill
pen. The doll moved its hand almost with the precision of a real person.
By the end of the Middle Ages, people were finding all sorts of reasons
for building intricate new machinery with small working parts. Navigators
needed very accurate clocks, called chronometers, to tell the time, so they
could work out their position at sea. Scientists needed precision-made microscopes,
telescopes, balances, and other measuring equipment in order to carry out
more detailed experiments.
|Small, finely-crafted parts allow this old
pocket watch to keep accurate time
As has often been the case in human history, was spurred the growth of new
technologies. Gun makers were urged to improve the accuracy and efficiency
of firearms, for instance.
With the development of the steam engine in the eighteenth century, complex
machinery could be driven to weave cotton and to propel steam trains. The
invention of the telegraph, radio, television, and many other devices followed,
along with the means to deliver electric power into people's homes.
When a new device is developed, it may not work particularly well. It is
likely to be clumsy, hard to move and operate, and expensive to manufacture.
Along with other improvements, engineers try to find ways to make the parts
of a new invention smaller and lighter.
|This bulky computer of 1948 was many times
less powerful than a modern personal computer
|Miniature Record Breakers
When it comes to making and measuring small things, there seems to
be almost no limit to human ingenuity. For example, the world's smallest
bicycle, belonging to a German circus performer, weighs only 1,050
grams (37 ounces) and has wheels that are just 4.5 centimeters (1.77
inches) high. Timekeeping technology has progressed even further.
The smallest watch, made in Switzerland, weighs under 7 grams (0.25
ounces) and measures 1.2 centimeters (just over ½ inch) long
and 0.48 centimeters (3/16 inch) wide.
The most advanced scientific balances in the world are capable of
measuring to an accuracy of 0.00000001 of a gram. The finest cuts
have been made at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.
Using a special device, scientists were able to slice a human hair
3,000 times lengthwise.
It's a Small, Small World
To see how much progress has been made in miniaturization, compare the goods
in a Sears catalog from around 1900 with the same kind o products available
today. Think also about how much a personal computer can do than one of
the world's most powerful, room-filling "electronic brains" fifty years
We live in a world of advanced technology – made possible, in part,
by our ability to manufacture very small, high-quality components. But just
how small can human-made devices become?