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Engineering & Applied Science: The Encyclopedia Britannica on the Head of a Pin?

The Encyclopedia Britannica on the Head of a Pin?

"Why can't we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?" Feynman queried in 1959. He offered $1000 to the first person who could reduce the page of a book to 1/25,000 linear scale, readable by an electron microscope. He also offered the same amount to the first person to build a miniature motor no bigger than 1/64th-inch cube. The talk was published the following February in Caltech's magazine, Engineering & Science, and has since become a classic.

The micromotor, constructed by William McLellan (see the exhibit Room at the Bottom), was the first practical result of Feynman's talk and the first prize-winner. From his award letter, Feynman apparently hoped that McLellan would not make a stab at the other prize.


The 1960 letter from Richard P. Feynman to William H. McLellan.

The tiny motor was put on display on the Caltech campus in 1962, and the start button may still be pushed --though the device became inoperable in 1991-- in East Bridge Laboratory. The micromotor also made a guest appearance at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as Feynman revisited "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" in a second talk titled "Infinitesimal Machinery." By then, January 1983, the computer chip had arrived.

The tiny print prize took 25 years to materialize and was finally awarded in November 1985 to a Stanford grad student named Thomas H. Newman. Newman had spent a month shrinking the first page of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

Photograph sent to Feynman by Thomas H. Newman, 1985. Richard P. Feynman Papers, Caltech