MEMS are literally microscopic-machines. The best-known MEMS are the accelerometers that have become ubiquitous in smartphones, allowing precise tracking of movement on the X, Y, and Z-axis. Significantly, MEMS are the reason your phone can sense movement. Additionally, other MEMS devices include miniature microphones, projectors, cameras, and countless others.
MEMS were first proposed in 1959 via a paper by physicist Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He theorized about the growth in micro and nanotechnology.
In 1964, Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse introduced the first working MEMS device, a tiny transistor. Subsequently, during the 1960s and 1970s work continued, with machines etched into silicon working as pressure sensors. Eventually, these evolved into MEMS-based blood pressure monitoring devices.
In 1979 HP released a MEMS controlled inkjet nozzle to create the inkjet printer.
The first crude MEMS accelerometer dates to 1982. Airbags were important because they must fire when needed, never fire when not needed, and react almost instantly.
By 1993 Analog Devices produced the first real 3D MEMS accelerometer. At $5 it cost far less and functioned far better than other solutions. Countless airbag deployments relied on this inexpensive yet accurate accelerometer. Eventually, Nintendo adopted it for use to track motion in the Wii gaming system.
MEMS technology continues to develop with scientists working on microscopic insulin pumps, glucometers, DNA arrays, and other lab-on-a-chip applications.