Materials Research Activities

SPMs commercially 1989-1995

SPMs commercial beginnings, 1989-1995

The first commercial company to produce scanning probe microscopes was Digital Instruments. It is already difficult to imagine this, but in the late 1980s, they still manufactured STMs using an analog feedback circuit controlling the tip movement. Severe mechanical and electrical constraints were placed on the microscope frameworkand the speed of the feedback system by the fact that the STM can only work properly with the tip at a distance of 10 to 20 angstroms. Only in 1989, did they shift to the use of a computer. Subsequently, many observers noted that the availability of ever more powerful and cost-effective electronic systems constituted the most significant contribution to the development.

In these early days it was not obvious that purchasing an STM was a better solution than building one oneself, or indeed that it would be cheaper. By 1989, Digital Instruments' Nanoscope II cost $69,000. In addition to the actual electron-tunneling spectroscopy tools, a complete system consisted of graphic workstations and software.

Throughout the 1990s more and more companies supplied SPMs and at the same time the species of SPMs proliferated to include all the items on the above bullet list. By 1991, Park Scientific Instruments, Hitachi Scientific Instruments, LK Technologies Inc., and Leica Inc. all supplied STMs.

By February 1992 they were joined by Topometrix Corp., Wyko Corp., Fisons Instruments, and the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and several now offered both an STM and an atomic force microscope.

And these are just the companies operating in the United States. Japan and Europe were just as important, if not more so. Hitachi had an SPM division in the US already in 1991, whereas Digital Instruments did not establish a Tokyo office before 1996. There are figures available for the entire market of surface analysis instrumentation, of which the SPM market constituted a part. In 1990, Japan had the larger share.Japanese companies bought five to 10 times as many ESCAs than US companies. The only remaining area of US domination was computational-intensive Auger systems. If one thinks of the relevant companies as national and not international one can make a simple-minded but telling comparison. Japan had 52 US patents on microscopy, the US had 50, West Germany had 17. All other countries combined had 11 and 19 patents can not be assigned to a single country of origin. Organizations with the most microscopy patents were Olympus (12), Hitachi (11), JEOL (10), and US universities (14). Within the US, the 1990 distribution of scanning electron microscopes is also telling: 26% high-tech industry, 14% government/university, 9% chemical, 10% test services, 23% other.


This page was written and last updated 28 February 2001 by Arne Hessenbruch.