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Emerging technologies are curious things. With their aura of risk and disruption, they seem to come out of nowhere—but their patina of novelty typically camouflages a much longer history. Cloud computing descended from 1960s-era computational time-sharing; Nikola Tesla wrote about the possibilities of self-driving cars decades ago. Indeed, promoters’ obscuration of emerging technologies’ past is essential to their future promise. Their seeming newness, coupled to their vulnerability to market forces and public reaction, helps generate hype. In turn, the hyperbole—so the model goes—drives interest and investment.

Since the 21st century began, few emerging technologies have been so heavily promoted, funded, and debated as nanotechnology. Defined (currently) by the U.S. government as “the understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale”—a nanometer is one-billionth a meter—nanotechnology as a field and research community has received billions of funding dollars, making it one of the nation’s largest technology investments since the space race.

Yet the idea that manipulation of the material world at the near-atomic scale was possible, even within grasp, possesses a historical arc stretching far back to the height of the Cold War.


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