Searching for asses, finding a kingdom: The story of the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM)

Galina Granek, Giora Hon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We offer a novel historical-philosophical framework for discussing experimental practice which we call 'Generating Experimental Knowledge'. It combines three different perspectives: experimental systems, concept formation, and the pivotal role of error. We then present an historical account of the invention of the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), or Raster- Tunnelmikroskop, and interpret it within the proposed framework. We show that at the outset of the STM project, Binnig and Rohrer - the inventors of the machine - filed two patent disclosures; the first is dated 22 December 1978 (Switzerland), and the second, two years later, 12 September 1980 (US). By studying closely these patent disclosures, the attempts to realize them, and the subsequent development of the machine, we present, within the framework of generating experimental knowledge, a new account of the invention of the STM. While the realization of the STM was still a long way off, the patent disclosures served as blueprints, marking the changes that had to be introduced on the way from the initial idea to its realization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-125
Number of pages25
JournalAnnals of Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research has been conducted within the framework of the project, Generating Experimental Knowledge: Experimental Systems, Concept Formation and the Pivotal Role of Error*a cooperation between the Philosophy Department, the University of Haifa (Giora Hon), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (Hans-Jörg Rheinberger) and the Department of History, University of Wuppertal (Friedrich Steinle). The project is funded by the German·Israeli Foundation (GIF), grant no. G-767·217.4/2002. We are grateful to Thomas Dohmen, Igal Dotan, Uljana Feest, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Jutta Schickore, Friedrich Steinle, Lambert Williams, and Gabor Zemplen for their comments on earlier versions of this paper presented at the University of Haifa, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. We are indebted to Susanne Johner, Assistant, Science & Technology Department, and to Nicole Hertfurth, Media Relations, of the IBM Research GmbH, Zurich Research Laboratory, Rüschlikon, Switzerland, for their kindness and generous assistance. We thank Ron Alter, the philosophy librarian to the University of Haifa, for helping us locate the Swiss Patent disclosure, Eden Orion for the preparation of the Figures, and two anonymous referees of this journal for insightful and most helpful comments.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History and Philosophy of Science


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