"I couldn't stop looking at the images," Gerd Binnig would say later, when accepting the Nobel Prize in 1986. "It was entering a new world."
Just four years before, in 1982, he and Heinrich Rohrer had invented a microscope that could probe a piece of material, inspect the atoms that made it up, and report back. But there was more; not only could they inspect the atoms—they could move them, too.
For centuries, scientists had been using light and lenses to see beyond the resolutions allowed by the inborn lenses of the human eye. But only since the 1930s had they been able to observe the world at scales smaller than light can elucidate.
In 1933, a German physicist had developed an electron microscope that could create images at a smaller scale than the best light microscope at the time—by sending electrons, rather than waves of light, through a sample. And as these so-called "transmission electron microscopes" improved, they showed with increasingly clarity the world of small things.
Just a few years later, another German inventor created a scanning electron microscope that would show the depth and surface features of the sample.