Dry Nanotech: 1937

From A Menace in Miniature

by Raymond Z. Gallun, pulp science fiction writer, Astounding Stories, Oct.1937

The mechanism looked like a beetle made of metal. Its length was only about a quarter of an inch; but it had legs like a living beetle. It was provided with a tiny rocket, and a gravity screen, like a spaceship. Moreover, it possessed a pair of appendages meant for grasping and handling. These were fitted with metal fingers finer than human hair...

The device was a microrobot, or, if the trade name was to be used, a Scarab. The task of constructing such a tiny and incredibly intricate fabrication was a matter involving infinite skill, patience, and precision. The most powerful microscopes had to be used, and the most delicate of tools. The nervous waver of a finger, during the process, was enough to ruin much of the fragile workmanship that had so far been completed...

"You know all about these microrobots. If you could make another one, the size of a grain of sand, it should be able to see just what the menace is!"...

"How could you expect me--anyone--to build a scarab no bigger than a sand grain?"...

"I don't mean that you should construct this ultra-microrobot with your own fingers, of course--at least not directly. I mean that you should manipulate the robot control, making our Scarab do the work. In the television screen you would see the magnified images of what its eyes saw. As far as vision and handling goes, the whole size scale would be raised so that the job would be almost like working with stuff of the usual dimensions."...

"Under more favorable circumstances I could really do it justice, by working--how should I say--in steps downward. With the Scarab as big as a beetle, I could make a Scarab as big as a sand grain.This second Scarab could build a miniature of itself, as big as a dust grain. The third Scarab could construct a fourth, bearing the same proportions as the first to the second, or the second to the third. And so on, down, to the limit imposed by the ultimate indivisibility of the atoms themselves!

The only difficulty would be in maintaining radio control of the smaller Scarabs--the waves they would emit and respond to would be so very fine and faint! But I think this obstacle could be surmounted in steps--upward and down! A large radio transmitter would send its signals to a small receiver, to which was attached a transmitter of the same size scale. This second transmitter would contact a still smaller receiver. And so the relaying process would continue, using finer and finer impulses all the time.

Upward the process would work just as well, a small transmitter contacting a larger, though sufficiently sensitive, receiver. The radios, which are part of each Scarab, in both diminishing and increasing order of size, would complete the chain. Thus I might be able to explore a truly miniature environment, in which the most minute microbes would appear as colossal monsters!"...

Actually, there might be a little more to it than that...

"Almost everything must be made from scratch, so to speak--even many of the tools for our present Scarab. Then it must devise wires almost as fine as the cilia of a microbe, and tiny electromagnets and photoelectric cells, and lenses of microscopic size, not to mention scores of other things as intricate! But from the complete set of spare parts...we can at least draw the necessary substances: steel foil and floss, copper, sodium, tantalum, tungsten, quartz, and so forth."...

On the turret floor, during the endless hours, a metal beetle toiled busily, plying tools which were almost too small to see with the unaided eye--tools many of which it had fabricated itself from bits of steel floss and foil, and minute flakes of hard diamond...

Gradually, the Scarab of super smallness was taking form. Viewed directly, it was only a glinting speck, like a little shred of steel among a mass of filings; but examined in the television screen, it was a minute though intricate thing, somewhat like the mechanism that was building it...

Supposedly, there was a vogue for tales of the miniature way back then. Does anyone else remember The Girl in the Golden Atom? Let's head uptime a few years...

From There's Plenty of Room At The Bottom by Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dec. 1959

Now comes the interesting question: How do we make such a tiny mechanism? I leave that to you. However, let me suggest one weird possibility. You know, in the atomic energy plants they have materials and machines that they can't handle directly because they have become radioactive. To unscrew nuts and put on bolts and so on, they have a set of master and slave hands, so that by operating a set of levers here, you control the ``hands'' there, and can turn them this way and that so you can handle things quite nicely.

Most of these devices are actually made rather simply, in that there is a particular cable, like a marionette string, that goes directly from the controls to the ``hands.'' But, of course, things also have been made using servo motors, so that the connection between the one thing and the other is electrical rather than mechanical. When you turn the levers, they turn a servo motor, and it changes the electrical currents in the wires, which repositions a motor at the other end.

Now, I want to build much the same device---a master-slave system which operates electrically. But I want the slaves to be made especially carefully by modern large-scale machinists so that they are one-fourth the scale of the ``hands'' that you ordinarily maneuver. So you have a scheme by which you can do things at one- quarter scale anyway---the little servo motors with little hands play with little nuts and bolts; they drill little holes; they are four times smaller. Aha! So I manufacture a quarter-size lathe; I manufacture quarter-size tools; and I make, at the one-quarter scale, still another set of hands again relatively one-quarter size! This is one-sixteenth size, from my point of view. And after I finish doing this I wire directly from my large-scale system, through transformers perhaps, to the one-sixteenth-size servo motors. Thus I can now manipulate the one-sixteenth size hands.

Well, you get the principle from there on. It is rather a difficult program, but it is a possibility. You might say that one can go much farther in one step than from one to four. Of course, this has all to be designed very carefully and it is not necessary simply to make it like hands. If you thought of it very carefully, you could probably arrive at a much better system for doing such things.

posted by Justin on 05.17.07 at 11:20 AM


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