Albert Victor Crewe was born February 18th, 1927 in Bradford, England, in-to a working class family, and died November 18th, 2009. He relocated to the United States where he invented the electron microscope.

Crewe achieved much in his life and amongst his many achievements will be best known for the invention of the scanning transmission electron microscope that took the very first picture of a single atom. A few years after this he also captured the motion of atoms, which provided scientists at the time with a unique insight into interactions at the atomic scale, and enabled numerous and significant advances, which in turn led to many significant developments in many industries such as biomedical, semiconductor and computing fields.

Crewe won a military scholarship to study physics at Liverpool University and stayed on to pursue his Ph.D. Whilst working as an instructor in physics at the university, a group of scientists from the University of Chicago, sent by Enrico Fermi, arrived looking for help in solving a problem with the Chicago synchrocyclotron. This visit led to an invitation for Crewe to visit the University of Chicago as a visiting research associate in 1955. A year later he was employed by the University as an assistant research professor, and the synchrocyclotron, by then, was in full working order.

It was at this time, around the 1960s that Crewe became interested in electron microscopy. Crewe was director at the Argonne National Laboratories, and on a return flight to the USA from England, having forgotten to buy a book to read on the plane, his mind turned once again to microscopy and he began sketching the ideas on a scrap of paper to improve the resolution and characteristics of conventional microscopes.

By the late 60's his ideas where beginning to develop traction and he left the Argonne National Laboratories to return to his first research home at the University of Chicago.

It was at the University that Crewe developed the first field emission electron gun, basically a new type of electron source that enabled superior quality images than had previously been achieved. This invention, in collaboration with concurrent developments in electron lenses and detection, led to the development of the highest resolution microscopes of the time. In 1970 he achieved the first ever photographs of individual atoms using his scanning transmission electron microscope, and a few years later the first motion pictures of atoms, providing fascinating insights at the time into atomic interaction.

Crewe had a long and distinguished career and his contributions will always be remembered as some of the most groundbreaking in our relentless ambition to learn and understand more of our smallest bedfellows; how they interact and behave, and how they may go on to help us in so many ways.

I hope you enjoy this special issue of Materials Today which takes some previously published material and specially commissioned articles to try and share some of the developments witnessed first by Dr Albert Victor Crewe.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70131-0