Nanotechnology without Engines

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour…. A carriage will start from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup in New York the same day…. Engines will drive boats 10 or 12 miles an hour, and there will be hundreds of steamers running on the Mississippi, as predicted years ago.”

–Oliver Evans, 1800 (h/t Pacific Southwest Railway Museum)

If Evans had been living today and had the spirit of our times instead of his, he would probably be associated with the National Railroad Initiative, a vast government program dedicated to … not building railroads. You see, the word “railroad” means a road made with rails — it doesn’t have anything to do with steam engines! Any notion of using steam engines to move things is preposterous science fiction: everybody knows that steam engines are the size of three-story buildings.

We, with a little history behind us, know differently. Real railroads combined two wildly different ideas that just happened to fit together perfectly in a match with both the technical capibilities and the needs of the day: laying tracks on the ground to carry steel wheels in a highly efficient mode, and a mobile steam engine to provide the power. The combination resulted in a game-changing technological and economic revolution.

Over at science progress, there’s a recent post by Mody and McCray entitled Big Whig History and Nano Narratives which has some interesting things to say about nanotechnology:

Nanotech contains some elements of recent vintage, but much of the nanotech enterprise is continuous with long-standing trends in science and engineering.

To begin with, to the extent they identify “nanotechnology” with what’s being funded by the NNI, they have that exactly right. Progress indeed is being made, but it’s progress that would have been made under the old names and organizations (and budgets) pretty much the same.

M&M’s key point about “Whig history” — the oversimplified stories of linear progress with good guys and bad guys in black and white — is sound as well.

Whig history would neglect the role of futurists like K. Eric Drexler in the 1980s in popularizing fantastic visions of what radical nanotechnologies might accomplish. …
Whig history would emphasize that Nobelist Richard Smalley did his best to discredit Drexler in 2001 and 2003. But it would ignore Smalley’s promotion of Drexler’s ideas in the early ’90s as a way to build support for his plans for nanotechnology at Rice University.

Unfortunately, perhaps because they are historians and not engineers, this is as much as M&M get right. They continue

Scientists then—and especially now—dismiss the feasibility of Drexler’s “molecular assemblers,” yet even as fantasies these images helped create public interest in the field which, in turn, helped motivate science policy.

which is simply incorrect. The only scientists, as opposed to engineers, who study self-replicating molecular systems are molecular biologists. Guess what they say about the possibility of micron-sized replicators? Engineers have studied closure in manufacturing systems since, well, the industrial revolution. Kindly remember that Feynman himself proposed a pathway to nanotech that started with self-replicating machine shops.

M&M have committed the railroad fallacy: they think “railroad” only means the rails; they’ve forgotten the engine. Nanotechnology, the revolutionary technology, was always about the power of self-replication and never only about the very small.

With their premises, unfortunately, M&M’s conclusion is foregone, and just as inevitably wrong:

Our recommendations for policymakers in the new Obama administration are two-fold. When considering whether to advocate and fund “new” emerging technologies, they must be aware that technological change is rarely revolutionary—continuity is the norm, not the exception.

As historians, M&M should know better. In technology, radical innovation has been remarkably common over the past couple of centuries. It is in politics that repression of innovation is the norm, and it was political repression of the innovative program of nanotech (while stealing the name) that happened here. M&M’s greatest failure is as historians: they have completely missed the crux of what happened in the NNI power-grab (although they have one of the biggest clues, Smalley’s flip-flop, right in their hands).

Gentlemen, go back and do your homework.

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