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What was the first use of nanotechnology in a science fiction story?

Richard Feynman gave a lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" in 1959 which defined many of the concepts of the technology, but nothing much happened for quite a while. I haven't read it, but I know that Robert Silverberg wrote a short story in 1969, How It Was When the Past Went Away, that invoked nanotechnology to construct stereo speakers. If anyone knows of an anthology that includes it, please let me know.

I've also read that Boris Zhitkov wrote a short story Microhands all the way back in 1931, in which microscopic tools were used to build still smaller tools. But it's not clear to me if the smallest instruments built were small enough to reach the nanoscale. At the very least, the story proves that people were thinking in this direction well before Feynman.

Is there anything earlier and smaller?

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    You can find a list of publications for that Silverberg story either at the ISFDB or at the Majipoor.com: The Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Web Site. – user14111 Mar 12 '16 at 7:35
  • @user14111 Thanks, I'll check those out. – rosesunhill Mar 12 '16 at 7:36
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    You may find something of interest in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia article on nanotechnology. – user14111 Mar 12 '16 at 7:39
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    Is 1969 or 1931 the date we have to beat? – user14111 Mar 12 '16 at 7:48
  • @14111 Provisionally, I would say 1969, because I'm just not sure if the earlier story fits. The second pair of instruments has to shrink to nanoscale dimensions to qualify and without reading the story, I can't be sure. It's a Russian story, which probably makes finding a copy harder. Of course, I'm hoping someone out there will know but . . . . There was a story by Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s, but from what I've read, the tech in it was in the micro, not nano level. – rosesunhill Mar 12 '16 at 9:23
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This page offers a candidate for first story to propose the idea of nanotech: "A Menace in Miniature" (1937) by Raymond Z. Gallun. According to the description, the characters in the story seem to be suffering from some sort of tiny projectiles that have gotten into their wounds, and one proposes to use a robot called a "scarab" which is about a quarter-inch-long. When another character, Dr. Kurt Rolf, suggests that the robot is probably too big to be of use, the first character replies:

"...you haven't got all of my idea yet, Doc. 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.

...

Rolf was silent for a moment. Then fierce eagerness seized him...

"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 story you mention, Microhands, was earlier though, so it depends as you say on whether Microhands mentioned the idea of building all the way down to the molecular scale. I tried running the online version in Russian through google translate and it looks to me as if the character only built the machines down to around the level of microorganisms like rotifers, though.

Also, without knowing more about "A Menace in Miniature", I don't know if the characters actually end up building any robots down to "the limit imposed by the ultimate indivisibility of the atoms themselves", but this might at least be the first story to explicitly discuss the idea.

As a side note, this article discusses the evidence that Feynman's speech on the idea of nanotechnology may have been indirectly inspired by Robert Heinlein's "Waldo" (1942), another story which featured a variant of the "remotely-controlled robots building smaller remotely-controlled robots" idea. It seems that Feynman's friend Al Hibbs had read Heinlein's story and been inspired to write up a patent based on the idea of remotely controlled robot manipulators, and Ed Regis' book Nano quoted Hibbs recalling a discussion with Feynman about it, including the idea of tiny ones:

"It was in this period, December 1958 to January 1959, that I talked it over with Feynman. Our conversations went beyond my 'remote manipulator' into the notion of making things smaller … I suggested a miniature surgeon robot…. He was delighted with the notion."

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    Thorough research and great answer. Finding the link to the Russian story is a coup, as is the article linking Heinlein and Feynman! – rosesunhill Mar 13 '16 at 1:02
  • In the story "A Menace in Miniature" (which I just read in Gallun's 1978 collection the characters build only the one sand-grain-sized ultra-microrobot. The hostile natives, called Paxtonians, are "as small, almost, as microbes"; the characters speculate that they miniaturized themselves over a long period of time through a combination of selective breeding and gland control. – user14111 Mar 13 '16 at 2:35

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