There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. An invitation to enter a new field of physics. Offprint from: Engineering and Science Magazine, February 1960.

Pasadena, CA: California Institute of Technology, 1960.

First edition, exceptionally rare offprint, signed by Feynman, of this visionary lecture which represents the birth of nanotechnology, the field of applied science involving manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale: ‘What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.’ “Feynman was the first to outline a world of technologies that would work and build at the ultimate, atomic scale” (K. Eric Drexler). At the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in December 1959, Richard Feynman delivered an after-dinner lecture entitled ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.’ “The banquet speech would prove prescient. Feynman’s lecture is widely accepted as spurring the field of nanotechnology, and the Nobel Prize Committee lauded it as ‘visionary’ when they awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to researchers who assembled tiny motors made of molecules” (Kornei). Years before the term nanotechnology would be coined, Feynman laid out the principal problems and potentials of the field. He noted, “I will not discuss how we are going to do it, but only that it is possible in principle—in other words what is possible according to the laws of physics.” Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time. Feynman laid out challenge after challenge: reducing the Encyclopedia Britannica to a pinhead, making an electron microscope that could see individual atoms, building a microscopic computer, and even “swallowing the doctor”—building a tiny, ingestible surgical robot. In an era when computers filled entire rooms, what Feynman proposed seemed nearly unfathomable: “I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately—in the great future—we can arrange atoms the way we want; all the way down!” Although versions of the talk were reprinted in a few popular magazines, it went largely unnoticed at the time (it was cited only seven times in the two decades following its publication). Beginning in the 1980s, however, nanotechnology advocates cited it to establish the scientific credibility of their work. Many of Feynman’s ideas have been explored and some have been realized, and nanotechnology holds the promise of revolutionizing industry and medicine. “Feynman was one of the most creative and influential physicists of the twentieth century. A veteran of the Manhattan Project of World War II and a 1965 Nobel laureate in physics, he made lasting contributions across many domains, from electrodynamics and quantum theory to nuclear and particle physics, solid-state physics, and gravitation” (DSB). We have never seen or heard of another copy of this offprint in the trade, and there is no trace of it in the auction records. There are no copies on OCLC, and only a tiny number must have been made available to Feynman. This example, signed by the legendary physicist, is an icon of modern visionary thought and technology.

“In the last few days of 1959, several hundred physicists gathered for “Winter Meeting in the West” of the American Physical Society. Feynman, then a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, was among the attendees, and he delivered an after-dinner lecture at the nearby Huntington-Sheraton Hotel entitled ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’” (Kornei).

“Feynman considered some ramifications of a general ability to manipulate matter on an atomic scale. He was particularly interested in the possibilities of denser computer circuitry, and microscopes that could see things much smaller than is possible with scanning electron microscopes. These ideas were later realized by the use of the scanning tunnelling microscope, the atomic force microscope and other examples of scanning probe microscopy and storage systems such as Millipede, created by researchers at IBM. Feynman also suggested that it should be possible, in principle, to make nanoscale machines that ‘arrange the atoms the way we want’, and do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation. He also presented the possibility of ‘swallowing the doctor’, an idea that he credited in the essay to his friend and graduate student Albert Hibbs. This concept involved building a tiny, swallowable surgical robot.

“As a thought experiment he proposed developing a set of one-quarter-scale manipulator hands slaved to the operator's hands to build one-quarter scale machine tools analogous to those found in any machine shop. This set of small tools would then be used by the small hands to build and operate ten sets of one-sixteenth-scale hands and tools, and so forth, culminating in perhaps a billion tiny factories to achieve massively parallel operations. He used the analogy of a pantograph as a way of scaling down items … As the sizes got smaller, one would have to redesign tools, because the relative strength of various forces would change. Gravity would become less important, and Van der Waals forces such as surface tension would become more important. Feynman mentioned these scaling issues during his talk … Feynman also mentioned in his lecture that it might be better eventually to use glass or plastic because their greater uniformity would avoid problems in the very small scale (metals and crystals are separated into domains where the lattice structure prevails) …

“At the meeting Feynman concluded his talk with two challenges, and offered a prize of $1000 for the first to solve each one. The first challenge involved the construction of a tiny motor, which, to Feynman’s surprise, was achieved by November 1960 by Caltech graduate William McLellan, a meticulous craftsman, using conventional tools. The motor met the conditions, but did not advance the art. The second challenge involved the possibility of scaling down letters small enough so as to be able to fit the entire Encyclopædia Britannica on the head of a pin, by writing the information from a book page on a surface 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale. In 1985, Tom Newman, a Stanford graduate student, successfully reduced the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by 1/25,000, and collected the second Feynman prize …

The New Scientist reported ‘the scientific audience was captivated.’ Feynman had ‘spun the idea off the top of his mind’ without even ‘notes from beforehand’. There were no copies of the speech available. A ‘foresighted admirer’ brought a tape recorder and an edited transcript, without Feynman’s jokes, was made for publication by Caltech. In February 1960, Caltech’s Engineering and Science published the speech [vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 22-36]. In addition to excerpts in The New Scientist, versions were printed in The Saturday Review and Popular Science

“After Feynman’s death, scholars studying the historical development of nanotechnology have concluded that his role in catalyzing nanotechnology research was not highly rated by many of the people active in the nascent field in the 1980s and 1990s. Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of South Carolina, has reconstructed the history of the publication and republication of Feynman’s talk, along with the record of citations to ‘Plenty of Room’ in the scientific literature. In Toumey's 2008 article ‘Reading Feynman into Nanotechnology’, he found 11 versions of the publication of ‘Plenty of Room’, plus two instances of a closely related talk by Feynman, ‘Infinitesimal Machinery’, [Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems 2 (1993), pp. 4-14] which Feynman called ‘Plenty of Room, Revisited’ …

Toumey found that the published versions of Feynman’s talk had a negligible influence in the twenty years after it was first published, as measured by citations in the scientific literature, and not much more influence in the decade after the Scanning Tunneling Microscope was invented in 1981.

“Interest in ‘Plenty of Room’ in the scientific literature greatly increased in the early 1990s. This is probably because the term ‘nanotechnology’ gained serious attention just before that time, following its use by Drexler in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, which cited Feynman, and in a cover article headlined ‘Nanotechnology’, published later that year in a mass-circulation science-oriented magazine, OMNI. The journal Nanotechnology was launched in 1989; the famous Eigler-Schweizer experiment, precisely manipulating 35 xenon atoms, was published in Nature in April 1990; and Science had a special issue on nanotechnology in November 1991. These and other developments hint that the retroactive rediscovery of ‘Plenty of Room’ gave nanotechnology a packaged history that provided an early date of December 1959, plus a connection to Feynman …

“Feynman’s stature as a Nobel laureate and as an important figure in 20th-century science helped advocates of nanotechnology and provided a valuable intellectual link to the past. More concretely, his stature and concept of atomically precise fabrication played a role in securing funding for nanotechnology research, illustrated by President Clinton's January 2000 speech calling for a Federal program:

‘My budget supports a major new National Nanotechnology Initiative, worth $500 million. Caltech is no stranger to the idea of nanotechnology the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular level. Over 40 years ago, Caltech’s own Richard Feynman asked, ‘What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?’’ …

“In 2016, a group of researchers of TU Delft and INL reported the storage of a paragraph of Feynman's talk using binary code where every bit was made with a single atomic vacancy. Using a scanning tunnelling microscope to manipulate thousand of atoms, the researchers crafted the text:

‘But I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately – in the great future – we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them (within reason, of course; you can't put them so that they are chemically unstable, for example). Up to now, we have been content to dig in the ground to find minerals. We heat them and we do things on a large scale with them, and we hope to get a pure substance with just so much impurity, and so on. But we must always accept some atomic arrangement that nature gives us. We haven't got anything, say, with a ‘checkerboard’ arrangement, with the impurity atoms exactly arranged 1,000 angstroms apart, or in some other particular pattern.’

“This text uses exactly 1 kilobyte, i.e., 8128 bits, made with 1 atom vacancy each, constituting thereby the first atomic kilobyte, with a storage density 500 larger than the state of the art approaches. The text required to ‘arrange the atoms the way we want’, in a checkerboard pattern. This self-referential tribute to Feynman’s vision was covered both by scientific journals and mainstream media” (Wikipedia).

Kornei, The Beginning of Nanotechnology at the 1959 APS Meeting, APS News, Nvember 2016 (

4to (296 x 223 mm), pp. [8]. Self-wrappers as issued. A fine copy.

Item #5184

Price: $65,000.00