More than 40 years ago, this paper was published, articulating clearly from a physical chemistry point of view the possibility that it might be possible to make a nontrivial electronic device (a rectifier, or diode) out of a single small molecule (a "donor"-bridge-"acceptor" structure, analogous to a pn junction - see this figure, from that paper). Since then, there has been a great deal of interest in "molecular electronics". This week I am at this conference in Israel, celebrating both this anniversary and the 70th birthday of Mark Ratner, the tremendous theoretical physical chemist who coauthored that paper and has maintained an infectious level of enthusiasm about this and all related topics.
The progress of the field has been interesting. In the late '90s through about 2002, there was enormous enthusiasm, with some practitioners making rather wild statements about where things were going. It turned out that this hype was largely over-the-top - some early measurements proved to be very poorly reproducible and/or incorrectly interpreted; being able to synthesize 1022 identical "components" in a beaker is great, but if each one has to be bonded with atomic precision to get reproducible responses that's less awesome; getting molecular devices to have genuinely useful electronic properties was harder than it looked, with some fundamental limitations; Hendrik Schoen was a fraud and his actions tainted the field; DARPA killed their Moletronics program, etc. That's roughly when I entered the field. Timing is everything.
Even with all these issues, these systems have proven to be a great proving ground for testing our understanding of a fair bit of physics and chemistry - how should we think about charge transport through small quantum systems? How important are quantum effects, electron-electron interactions, electron-vibrational interactions? How does dissipation really work at these scales? Do we really understand how to compute molecular levels/gaps in free space and on surfaces with quantitative accuracy? Can we properly treat open quantum systems, where particles and energy flow in and out? What about time-dependent cases, relevant when experiments involve pump/probe optical approaches? Even though we are (in my opinion) very unlikely to use single- or few-molecule devices in technologies, we are absolutely headed toward molecular-scale (countably few atom) silicon devices, and a lot of this physics is relevant there. Similarly, the energetic and electronic structure issues involved are critically important to understanding catalysis, surface chemistry, organic photovoltaics, etc.