Two scientists at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, won the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope in the early 1980s. But that microscope needed an electrically conducting surface.
So Binnig overcame that limitation with the atomic-force microscope, which he invented in 1986, then further developed with fellow IBM researcher Christoph Gerber and Stanford University professor Cal Quate. Scientists at IBM and elsewhere quickly modified the basic design to detect such forces as magnetism, friction and electrostatic attraction. One variation, the magnetic-resonance-force microscope, can detect the spin of subsurface single electrons.