An article in the December 2003 Smithsonian contains a cautionary tale for U.S. nanotechnology efforts. The article, "Taking Wing: A Century of Flight", tells how America lost the lead in aviation in the decades following the Wright brothers' flight.
William Pickering, an eminent Harvard astronomer, is quoted as saying in 1908: "It is doubtful if aeroplanes will ever cross the ocean. The public has greatly overestimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day. This is manifestly impossible."
Nineteen years later, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight.
However, the article asserts that "Such disdain chilled U.S. investment in aviation. Between 1908 and 1913, the U.S. government spent only $435,000 on aviation -- less than Germany, France, Chile and even Bulgaria. European inventors and entrepreneurs were soon building better, faster and more stable planes than were the Wrights."
When jets were invented in England and Japan, "In America, military brass put jets on a back burner, convinced the war would be won with conventional airplanes, and lots of them. Diverting resources to work on the unproven jet, authorities insisted, would be a waste of time."
The world's first operational jet flew in the Luftwaffe. "But after the Allies swept through Germany at the end of the war, they recruited dozens of German jet and rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, and then took them to the United States in 'Operation Paperclip'."
One might imagine a current mainstream nanotechnologist saying, "It is doubtful if nanomachines will ever do chemistry. The public has greatly overestimated the possibilities of mechanosynthesis, imagining that in another generation nanofactories will be able to build large products in a day. This is manifestly impossible."
And one might imagine history recording that: "Such disdain chilled U.S. investment in molecular manufacturing. Between 1992 and 2004, the U.S. government spent only $2 million on molecular manufacturing -- less than Russia, China, and even Iran. Asian inventors and entrepreneurs were soon building stronger, more stable, and more complex nanomachines than were Smalley and Whitesides."
This revised story has an eerie ring to it: "In America, nanotechnology administrators put molecular manufacturing on a back burner, convinced the market would be won with conventional nanomaterials, and lots of them. Diverting resources to work on the unproven mechanosynthetic fabricator, authorities insisted, would be a waste of time."
Now let's take it just a few years into the future, say 2010 or 2015. In this scenario, the world's first operational nanofactory is used by Chinese forces in the Siberian campaign. "But after the Alliance swept through Russia at the end of the war, they recruited dozens of Russian and Chinese mechanosynthesis and nanomachine scientists and then took them to the United States in 'Operation Stapler'."
Perhaps the most unlikely thing about this tale is the possibility of the side without a nanofactory being victorious in war.