A term popularised by K. Eric Drexler's highly influential work of speculative nonfiction Engines of Creation (1987), often abbreviated to ''nanotech'' and readily giving rise to such derivatives as ''nanoware'' and ''nanobots'' (nanotechnological robots). Engines of Creation summarised a train of thought that Drexler had first set in motion in ''Molecular Engineering: An Approach to the Development of General Capabilities for Molecular Manipulation'' (1981), although similar ideas had previously been broached in Richard Feynman's essay ''There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom'' (1961, in H. D. Gilbert's Miniaturization). Nanotechnology is a drastic extrapolation of the notion of technological miniaturisation, proposing the development and use of extremely tiny machines capable of manipulating individual atoms and molecules, simulating and vastly extending the ''natural molecular technologies'' used by living cells to manufacture proteins, organs, and whole bodies.
In general, mechanical devices become more powerful as they increase in size, so the main thrust of technological development in respect of such epoch-making devices as mills and locomotives had tended towards giantism. A contrary trend towards miniaturisation had, however, been generated by the demand for portability. The first significant trend towards miniaturisation was that reducing clockwork to the dimensions of pocket watches, which necessitated a transfer of fine-working skills from jewellers to watchmakers—a generalisation of application that played a significant role in the development of other devices, such as movable print and microscopes. Another trend towards miniaturisation prompted by the necessity of portability led from cannon through muskets to handguns, although the utility of portable guns was limited by the corresponding loss of killing power.
Similar trends became increasingly evident in the nineteenth century, with the development of such domestic apparatus as typewriters and vacuum cleaners and the replacement of public transport by private automobiles—reflected in speculative fiction in the imagery of personal aircraft and helicopter backpacks. The possibilities of ultra-miniaturisation remained beyond the imaginative horizon until the development of the microchip and its deployment in personal computers brought about a sudden and drastic change of attitude; the idea of nanotechnology appeared soon thereafter.
The progress of surgical techniques in the last decades of the twentieth century, involving the computerised direction of tiny probes with the aid of microscopic cameras in order to perform such operations as placing stents to widen clogged arteries, soon tested the limits of what could be achieved by direct manipulation, but Drexler proposed that the inherent limitations of human fingers and eyes could be overcome. He suggested that it ought to be possible to build self-directing ''assemblers'' in successive generations, using small machines to manufacture even smaller machines in series. He also suggested that problems of design could be solved with the aid of self-improving artificial intelligence programs that would make ever-more-rapid progress as the machines they guided descended the space-time scale. The economic potential of nanotechnology immediately excited interest; Fortune discussed it in ''Where the Next Fortunes Will Be Made'' in 1988 and The Economist considered it in ''The Invisible Factory'' in 1989. The notion was taken up with equal alacrity by science fiction writers, following a popularising article by Drexler and Chris Peterson in the mid-December 1987 issue of Analog. Gregory *Benford was one of the participants in Nanocon 1: The First Northwest Conference on Nanotechnology in Seattle in February 1989.
Science-fictional anticipations of nanotechnology had been relatively rare, although R. A. Lafferty's ''McGruder's Marvels'' (1968) is a significant exception that might have taken its inspiration from Feynman. Ian Watson was one of the first post-Drexlerian science fiction writers to declare that the nascent phase in history was ''Nanoware Time'' (1989), but many others joined enthusiastically in the business of further elaborating the notion, including Michael J. Flynn, in the stories combined in themosaicTheNanotechChronicles (1989–1991; book, 1991).
The obvious utility of nanotech in medicine prompted many of the early fictitious depictions of nanotech at work. Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers (1987), W. T. Quick's ''The Healing'' (1988), Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) and its sequel Slant (1997), and Mark O. Halverson's ''Incident at the Angel of Boundless Compassion'' (1993) speculate about its potential impact in that arena. Jeffrey Carver's From a Changeling Star (1989) foregrounded the potential of internal nanotechnology. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff's ''If It Ain't Broke…''. (1991) featured ''large'' nanomachines—''meganannies''—designed to fix tiny things and clean up miniature messes, while her ''Sunshine, Genius and Rust'' (1993) fused nanotech with *genetic engineering in ''genano engineering''.
The idea that Drexlerian assemblers or nanobots could be used to process extremely raw material into any object of desire prompted speculation about amorphous ''utility mists'' awaiting temporary metamorphosis into useful objects and melodramatic accounts of ''grey goo catastrophes'' precipitated by out-of-control nanotechnologies, as foreshadowed (in a different hue) in Greg Bear's *biotechnological fantasy Blood Music (1985). Later variants of the grey goo catastrophe scenario similarly gave rise to goos of many other colours, but blue was conventionally reserved for defensive measures intended to prevent such catastrophes.
Given that the hypothetical assemblers were to be designed and operated by artificial intelligences derived by natural selection, it seemed only natural to many writers that the nanotechnologies in question might develop goals and purposes of their own, which might well remain incomprehensible to human beings, as in such postdisaster scenarios as those mapped out in Katherine Ann Goonan's Queen City Jazz (1994) and its sequels and Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City (2001). Alien nanotechnology begins to dismantle the solar system in Roger McBride Allen's The Ring of Charon (1990), and threatens to do likewise in Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason's Assemblers of Infinity (1993). A leisure society is sustained by nanotech in Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi (1993).
Ian Watson's contention in a futurological seminar hosted by British Telecom that nanotechnology would deliver immortality prompted Ian McDonald to wonder whether it might also facilitate resurrection—an idea he developed in Necroville (1994; aka Terminal Cafe´). Linda Nagata's work, from The Bohr Maker (1995) on, made extravagant use of nanotechnology, which reached a strange extreme in Memory (2003), set on a ring-shaped planet afflicted by mysterious nanotechnological fog controlled by insectile mechanical ''kobolds''. Wil McCarthy's Murder in the Solid State (1996) is an early nanotech murder mystery, while Bloom (1998) carried the development of an organic nanotechnology further forward. The Notion of microcosmic telepresence was developed in such stories as Pete D. Manison's ''First Nanocontact'' (1997). The first decade of science-fictional speculation was summarised in Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois' theme anthology Nanotech (1998).
By the end of the twentieth century, the continued evolution of nanotechnology was taken for granted in most of the futuristic scenarios of hard science fiction, although opinions differed widely as to the expectable pace of that progress. The second part of Drexler's thesis, regarding the potential use of artificial intelligences derived by natural selection to incorporate themselves in progressively smaller forms, encouraged the notion that technological advancement would accelerate towards a technological singularity, pioneered in such works as Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995).
The nanotech menace inevitably occupied its niche within *technothriller fiction, as in Michael Crichton's Prey (2002) and John Shirley's Crawlers (2003), but always threatened to smash through the normalising boundaries of that genre, as in such accounts of pestilential nanoware as Paul J. McAuley's Fairyland (1995). Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague (2000), in which intelligent nanotechnological commensals must decide whether or not to rebel against their host, summarised the ambivalent situation reached at the end of the twentieth century.
In Tony Daniel's Metaplanetary (2001) and Superluminal (2004), nanotech cables provide literal connective tissue for an elaborate future society, while Karl Schroeder's Ventus (2000) and Permanence (2002) look forward to a nanotechnological vitalisation of the entire human environment and Justina Robson's Mappa Mundi (2001) carries forward the potential medical applications of nanotech. On the other hand, Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain (2004) looks forward to a hyperdestructive ''nanocaust'' and Schroeder's Lady of Mazes (2005) inverts the situation in a different direction, with internal nanotech controlling human perception of the world.