Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

MEMS are literally microscopic-machines. The best-known MEMS are the accelerometers that have become ubiquitous in smartphones, allowing precise tracking of movement on the X, Y, and Z-axis. Significantly, MEMS are the reason your phone can sense movement. Additionally, other MEMS devices include miniature microphones, projectors, cameras, and countless others.

MEMS were first proposed in 1959 via a paper by physicist Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He theorized about the growth in micro and nanotechnology.

In 1964, Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse introduced the first working MEMS device, a tiny transistor. Subsequently, during the 1960s and 1970s work continued, with machines etched into silicon working as pressure sensors. Eventually, these evolved into MEMS-based blood pressure monitoring devices.

In 1979 HP released a MEMS controlled inkjet nozzle to create the inkjet printer.

The first crude MEMS accelerometer dates to 1982. Airbags were important because they must fire when needed, never fire when not needed, and react almost instantly.

By 1993 Analog Devices produced the first real 3D MEMS accelerometer. At $5 it cost far less and functioned far better than other solutions. Countless airbag deployments relied on this inexpensive yet accurate accelerometer. Eventually, Nintendo adopted it for use to track motion in the Wii gaming system.

MEMS technology continues to develop with scientists working on microscopic insulin pumps, glucometers, DNA arrays, and other lab-on-a-chip applications.

Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.


The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.

DNA Sequencing

DNA sequencing creates a map of DNA. The process reads DNA like a computer reads a hard drive. Eventually, the technology will allow scientists to understand and manipulate life functions.

In 1955, Sanger discovered how to sequence DNA, which would later win him the Nobel Prize. He is one of four people in the world to win the Nobel Prize twice.

In 1977, the first full DNA sequence was performed. Allan Maxam and Walter Gilbert created a chemical-based method that allowed purified samples of DNA to be sequenced without further cloning.

Progress proceeded rapidly. By 1987, Sanger sequencing machines could generate about 1,000 base pairs per day. By 2001, automated genomic sequencing centers generated up to 10 million base pairs per day. In 2005, new instruments were released that allowed the inexpensive sequencing of entire genomes. These were called “next-generation sequencing,” illustrating the difference of the STEM crowd from their more creative classmates. This period is referred to as the “democratization” of sequencing due to the low-cost and potentially high-impact sequencers.

Next-generation sequencers were highly parallel, with many base pairs being sequenced at the same time. They worked at a tiny scale, typically on a chip. The sequencers were fast, low-cost, and read a small amount of DNA rather than a large part of the strand.

The Human Genome Project, sequencing an entire person, started in 1990 and completed in 2003; it cost about $1 billion. Today, sequencing an entire genome takes about an hour and costs about $100.

DNA sequencing is seen as the key to future medicine. For example, scientists can eventually sequence a person, a virus, and devise a specific medicine that kills a specific virus in a specific person. The method is already in primitive use in the field of oncology, where customized immune “t-cells” are tuned to kill cancer cells. When it works, patients report being able to literally see cancer tumors melt away after being injected. While the medical technology promises to eventually be a Star-Trek like system — take a scan and give a shot that cures anything — it is still in its infancy.

Nuclear Power

One of the great physicists, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938, at the age of 37. No sooner did he receive his prize than he fled from his home in fascist Italy to New York City, taking US citizenship.

Eventually, Fermi and the other nuclear scientists had convinced President Roosevelt that the Nazis could and would produce a nuclear bomb, which led the US government to grant them virtually unlimited funding.

On Dec. 2, 1942, Fermi’s reactor ー under the squash court at the University of Chicago ー went critical to become the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Fermi would eventually work on the Manhattan Project, to develop nuclear weapons and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Like many early nuclear scientists, Fermi died of cancer at the young age of 53.

Eventually, in 1951, Walter Zinn connected a Fermi reactor to the rest of the equipment needed to generate electricity. This created the first working nuclear power plant.

Electron Microscope

Electron microscopes enable scientists to see extremely small particles.

In the 1920s, scientists discovered that electrons in a vacuum behave much like light except they can be manipulated with electric and magnetic fields. Since electrons curve around particles, these electron microscopes are vastly more powerful than traditional light-based microscopes.

Ruska invented the electron microscope at Siemens, as an employee. Eventually, he eventually left to serve as director of the Fritz Haber Institute then as a professor at the Technical University of Berlin. Although the microscope worked it did not produce especially useful images.

Eventually, Max Knoll invented the first Transmission Electron Microscope, refining Ruska’s invention. Knoll’s microscope produced vivid images. Later enhancements included the Scanning Tunneling Microscope.

Ruska won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1986.

Marine Chronometer

This device, an accurate clock that works on ships, allows sailors to much more accurately navigate. Before this innovation, sailors had to guess, and it was common for ships to miss their destination on a journey by hundreds of miles. This device reduced the risk and cost of long journeys by ship, lowering the cost of long-distance trade. Modern GPS also relies on extremely accurate timers.


Sun and star positioning allowed ships to determine latitude with reasonable accuracy but not longitude. Before the marine chronometer, the only way to determine longitude required a highly accurate clock. Except that the only clicks in existence relied on pendulums, which do not work at sea. Due to this, sailors often veered off course by a long distance. It was not unheard of to sail to the wrong country, which might be at war with a ships intended destination.

In one notable accident, the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707, England lost four ships and 1,400-2,000 men after a longitude navigation error. After that, the English parliament floated a £20,000 prize (an enormous amount of money) to anybody who could make an accurate clock that worked at sea.

Pushback From Professionals

Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, built a spring-loaded clock that enabled sailors to accurately determine the longitude making navigation more precise and safer. Harrison built four versions, H1-H5[1], over 46 years. Harrison’s clock was so accurate and reliable that even the earliest prototype continues working today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mRTMZ3pTtM

Despite that Harrison’s clock repeatedly passed tests, aristocratic judges rejected it. The judges were members of an exclusive click making society, Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. As a self-taught inventor, Harrison did not belong and they argued his clock failed to meet their criteria. Modern engineers have determined these rejections were in bad-faith: that Harrison’s clock worked.

Capt. James Cook attributed his ability to circumnavigate the globe to Harrison’s H4 clock. Despite this, the clockmaking judge panel refused to agree the clock was good enough. Eventually, a portion of the prize was paid as outraged legislators and King George III intervened, but Harrison was never awarded the entire prize.

[1] H1-H3 were large spring clocks; pendulum style clocks that used springs. H4-5 were timepieces.