Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Arising from the HIBAR project-rich environment within Bell Labs Zurich, the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope enabled atomic-scale resolution of surface structure.


The Scanning Tunneling Microscope is a development that arose at Bell Labs Zurich in the 1980s. Its development is largely attributed to work by Drs. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for this breakthrough in 1986. Remarkably, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope could have been developed decades earlier, since the underlying technologies had been understood for a long time.  Yet no one had previously recognized that the well-known quantum physics phenomenon of tunneling could readily enable atomic-scale resolution of surface structure. All of a sudden, people could “see” atoms. Since then, this technology has had tremendous impact in many areas of science and technology.

The HIBAR elements of this project:

Dual motivations: Binnig and Rohrer were embedded in a corporate laboratory that lived and breathed the dual motivations of HIBAR research. They wished to image atoms to understand nature better and because they sensed this could lead to solving numerous practical problems.

Dual methods: Binnig and Rohrer were very experienced at traditional scientific analysis, but their discovery required more than just that – it required a practical creative leap that was long overdue.

Dual partners: Certainly Binnig and Rohrer represent only one aspect of the HIBAR duality of participants – the research side.  The other side – involvement of experts concerning problems in society – is less obvious, but according to general accounts of the culture of leading corporate labs of that era, there was regular contact with leaders who directly appreciated present and future technological problems and used that knowledge to help inspire valuable research efforts.

Dual time frame: Had Binnig and Rohrer cared only about rapidly solving an immediate problem to financially assist their company in the short term, they probably would not have developed the Scanning Tunneling Microscope – it would obviously take a long time to have its immense practical impact and might not directly help their employer.  If their goal had simply been scientific research, they could have pursued other projects that had a greater chance of yielding new knowledge. From this perspective, their discovery is a perfect example of the intermediate time range addressed in HIBAR research projects.