Today, we make things very small. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In the late '60s we set up a
computer room for our engineering students. It
housed six new Wang calculators with big electric
faces. They'd add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
They even gave some extras like square roots and
logarithms. Of course they had nothing like the
power of the calculator that rides, almost as an
afterthought, on my wristwatch today.
The students loved those big old machines, and we
kept them under lock and key. They were crown
jewels. They'd cost $6000 -- enough to buy two
fancy new cars in 1967. But machines were shrinking
fast. Students finally quit asking for the key in
the mid-'70s. By then, discount stores gave them
far more in a $20 hand calculator. Since then,
mechanical miniaturization has kept burrowing
Now the end of smallness is coming into view. Today
we can shape materials down to the level of
nanometers. That's a billionth of a meter. It's
roughly the spacing between atoms in a solid.
The speed between the magnetic head and the hard
disk in your computer is 100 miles an hour. Today,
your computer's magnetic heads can ride as close as
50 nanometers from the surface. That's been
compared to a 747 trying to fly an inch off the
ground. Lubricant films on the surface of your hard
disk are measured not in units of length but in
A gadget called a laser well is used in fiber
optics communication. It demands miniaturization in
yet another form. After your voice has been
converted to a pulse of light, the laser well
forwards that pulse into a tiny fiber-optic
filament. It has to be very fast and very small.
Here's a microscopic photo of an ant's antenna. It
looms over an array of laser wells. They've been
made by depositing single layers of atoms. Some are
only a thousand nanometers across.
We're building an invisible world. It's an Alice in
Wonderland world where all the rules've been
rewritten. We're dealing in devices that change in
big jumps as we add or subtract single layers of
So the end of miniaturization is in sight. We'll
learn to control smallness all the way down to
atomic dimensions. Then we'll shrink things a
little more by handling light instead of matter.
And there we reach the end of smallness. But we do
not reach the end of change, because ingenuity will
go on. When it reaches the end of smallness,
ingenuity will simply turn about and march off to
the end of something else.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds