Who Invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope?

A History of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope


The scanning tunneling microscope or STM is widely used in both industrial and fundamental research to obtain atomic scale images of metal surfaces. It provides a three-dimensional profile of the surface and provides useful information for characterizing surface roughness, observing surface defects and determining the size and conformation of molecules and aggregates. 

Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer are the inventors of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Invented in 1981, the device provided the first images of individual atoms on the surfaces of materials.

Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer

Binnig, along with colleague Rohrer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1986 for his work in scanning tunneling microscopy. Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1947, Dr. Binnig attended J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt and received a bachelor's degree in 1973 as well as a doctorate five years later in 1978.

He joined a physics research group at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory that same year. Dr. Binnig was assigned to IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California from 1985 to 1986 and was a visiting professor at nearby Stanford University from 1987 to 1988. He was appointed an IBM Fellow in 1987 and remains a research staff member at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory. 

Born in Buchs, Switzerland in 1933, Dr. Rohrer was educated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1955 and his doctorate in 1960. After doing post-doctoral work at the Swiss Federal Institute and Rutgers University in the U.S., Dr. Rohrer joined IBM's newly formed Zurich Research Laboratory to study -- among other things -- Kondo materials and antiferromagnets. He then turned his attention to scanning tunneling microscopy. Dr. Rohrer was appointed an IBM Fellow in 1986 and was manager of the Physical Sciences Department at the Zurich Research Laboratory from 1986 to 1988. He retired from IBM in July 1997 and passed away on May 16, 2013.

Binnig and Rohrer were recognized for developing the powerful microscopy technique that forms an image of individual atoms on a metal or semiconductor surface by scanning the tip of a needle over the surface at a height of only a few atomic diameters. They shared the award with German scientist Ernst Ruska, the designer of the first electron microscope. Several scanning microscopies use the scanning technology developed for the STM.

Russell Young and the Topografiner

A similar microscope called the Topografiner was invented by Russell Young and his colleagues between 1965 and 1971 at the National Bureau of Standards, currently known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This microscope works on the principle that the left and right piezo drivers scan the tip over and slightly above the specimen surface. The center piezo is controlled by a servo system to maintain a constant voltage, which results in a consistent vertical separation between the tip and the surface. An electron multiplier detects the tiny fraction of the tunneling current which is scattered by the specimen surface.

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Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/scanning-tunneling-microscope-4075527. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Who Invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/scanning-tunneling-microscope-4075527 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/scanning-tunneling-microscope-4075527 (accessed February 7, 2023).