Pioneers of Nanotechnology

For several years, the Center for Contemporary History and Policy has had a partnership with the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In this partnership, the centers have collaborated on a number of oral histories with diverse researchers in nanotechnology.

In the past several months, researchers at both centers have designed and launched a new phase in this oral history partnership. Over the next five years, they will produce ten in-depth oral histories with early pioneers in nanotechnology. This effort will look to cover the breadth and variety of activities during the early phases of the nanotechnology revolution by capturing the stories of some of its most central characters. When complete, these full oral histories will be made available online.

 In January 2011, I conducted the first interview in this new effort, a discussion ranging over six and a half hours with James Von Ehr II. Von Ehr is arguably the entrepreneur who has invested the most of his personal resources in nanotechnology. Von Ehr began his career in software design and programming for the semiconductor industry, where he developed systems for the computer-assisted design of microchips. In the 1980s, he made his first entrepreneurial move, creating a software company that focused on the emerging business of desktop publishing. Von Ehr sold his company, Altsys, to Macromedia (now part of Adobe) in the mid-1990s . Almost immediately, Von Ehr launched another, more ambitious entrepreneurial endeavor. He founded a new company, Zyvex, to pursue the vision of atomically precise manufacturing in nanotechnology that was generating a substantial buzz in scientific, technical and government circles, and also in popular culture.

Von Ehr’s account of the unfolding of the Zyvex story across the last fifteen years is both fascinating in its own right, and very revealing of large-scale factors at play in the development of nanotechnology. Stay tuned for the oral history.

Posted In: History | Policy

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