In 1987 a camera attached to a microscope snapped images of tiny gears, each of which had a diameter approaching that of the proverbial human hair. The black-and-white photographs that graced the pages of national magazines at the time evoked prospects of a true-to-life Fantastic Voyage. One of the creators of the microgears was a researcher at Bell Labs, just a few years removed from a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the ensuing 17 years, the gears took a quick beeline to nowhere. The minuscule elements, producing a lot less torque than a mechanical watch part, will never power a submarine through the blood vessels on a trip to the islets of Langerhans. But the researcher, Kaigham (Ken) J. Gabriel, did go on to become a major figure in shaping the still emerging field of microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS.
This article was originally published with the title Micro(mechanical)phones.