Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first hard drive, the IBM (NYSE:IBM) RAMAC. This month is also the 25th anniversary of the wide-scale rollout of the first personal computer, the IBM 5150.

I know these things because I was contemplating these historic business milestones after I put my son on the school bus for his first day of kindergarten last week.


Here is how the two are related. If you are a financial worry-wart like me, your child's first day of kindergarten means one thing: that college -- and thus college tuition -- is less than 13 years away.

This frightening reality, in turn, got me to thinking about just how my wife and I are going to pay for our children's college education (we also have a seven-year-old daughter).

Naturally, my thoughts turned to the stock market and, for a moment, I daydreamed about the possibility of finding a 50-bagger that could transform our son's $2,000 annual Coverdell education contribution into a cool $100,000 by the time he treks off to a college campus in 2019.

Depending on which school he ends up attending, such a tidy sum could cover a healthy portion of the bill -- although perhaps not as much as I would like to think if college tuition continues to inflate at an annual double-digit rate.

Obviously, my strategy for assisting my children with their college tuition will not depend solely on this long-shot scenario. We also plan on making regular annual contributions to both children's Coverdell accounts, as well as a separate 529 savings plan. Nevertheless, I decided to play with this 50-bagger scenario in my mind a little longer.

If I wanted to find such a stock (and who doesn't), how I would go about doing it?

Not having a crystal ball to discern the future, I did the next best thing. I turned to history for some inspiration, and it was this insight that led me to the anniversaries of the first hard drive and the first PC.

Identify trends that will scale
Let me first provide some context. A few years ago I wrote a book entitled The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business. In the opening chapter I explained how I came to be involved in nanotechnology.

I pinpointed my interest in the field to a paragraph in the executive summary of a report the National Science Foundation commissioned on nanotechnology in 1999. The paragraph, written by a panel of this country's pre-eminent scientists, said this: "Because of nanotechnology we will see more change in the next 25 years than we have witnessed in the past 100 years."

The statement blew me away. If true -- and I believe it is because of the exponential advancement of technology -- it suggests that within the next 12.5 years (or by about the time my son is nearly ready for college) society will experience as much change as we have witnessed in the past 50 years.

I then wondered what the emerging industries that farsighted investors might have identified 50 years ago were. And upon learning that the world's first hard disk was created in 1956, I figured that data storage might have been one such industry.

The more I thought about it, though, the more unlikely this seemed. This is because when the IBM RAMAC was first built, it was a multimillion dollar piece of equipment that weighed a ton, used 50 24-inch circumference platters, and could store only 5 MB of data.

In short, it wouldn't have struck the average investor as a particularly user-friendly device, and few would have dared imagine that in just five decades, millions of us would own super small, inexpensive memory sticks capable of holding 150,000 times as much information as RAMAC.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this is exactly what's happened, and I believe there's much we can learn from this oversight.

First, it's important to discern which technologies are likely to scale and improve with time. IBM has been a 50-bagger since 1956, in part, because it understood that data storage technology could do both of these things and dedicated itself to being a leader in the field.

Secondly, it's also important to understand what new capabilities might become possible as the technology scales. One company that figured out how to harness the power of increasing data storage is Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Since 2001, it has been about an 8-bagger in large measure because it figured out how to use increasing data storage capacity to enable the iPod.

In my research, I also went back 25 years, to 1981, and found that much the same dynamic was at work in the field of the personal computer. Again, the companies that benefited the most were those who took the personal computer and improved upon it, like Dell (NASDAQ:DELL); or, alternatively, those who understood it was a platform to provide new services and applications, such as Adobe Systems (NASDAQ:ADBE) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT).

In the latter two cases, Microsoft's stock has been a 325-bagger since 1986, while Adobe has been a steller 160-bagger. Dell, a 51-bagger since 1992, hasn't been too shabby, either. (I'll admit that Dell and Microsoft's stocks have not moved much since 2001, but that's another story for another time.)

The past is prelude
With this knowledge in mind, I then wondered what current trends, in 2006, might scale up in a fashion similar to data storage and the PC. After a considerable amount of time and research, I've personally settled on three: nanotechnology, solar power, and robotic technology. (The list is not meant to be exclusive. Strong arguments can be also be made for biotechnology, wireless technology, personalized medicine, and fuel cell technology, to name just a few.)

The question then becomes: How does one go about finding the next 10-, 20-, 40-, or 50-bagger in these fields? To my mind, it's no great secret -- although I'll admit it's easier said than done. You begin by identifying companies that have solid financials and strong, solid management teams. From there, you look for those companies that can make products better, faster, and cheaper, or more convenient.

To this end, in the field of nanotechnology, one company I'm especially bullish on is Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Harris & Harris (NASDAQ:TINY). It's a publicly traded venture capital firm that holds an equity stake in over one dozen of the most promising privately held nanotechnology companies.

And while I don't believe that Harris & Harris will be a 50-bagger (I do believe it has plenty of upside potential), I'm of the opinion that many of the private nanotech companies it has invested in -- such as Molecular Imprint, Nantero, Cambious, and Evolved Nanomaterials Sciences -- could be 50-baggers. Moreover, Harris & Harris has invested in quantum computer maker D-Wave System, which is one of those companies that, although it's far more likely to fail than succeed, could be this generation's 330-bagger on the rare chance that it does succeed. Extremely high risk, potentially high reward.

In the field of solar power, I encourage readers to review "An 11-Bagger With a Suntan" by fellow Fool Tim Beyers. From my perspective, this field represents another technology that's poised to scale.

Although solar power currently produces only 0.1% of our country's energy needs, it's growing at a 40% annual rate and will only continue to grow larger as photovoltaics become more efficient and are manufactured with flexible, conductive polymers.

I also see robotic technology as another field ripe to produce some multibaggers. One company I'm especially keen on is Rule Breakers recommendation iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT). I liken the status of the company's Roomba and Scooba vacuum cleaner robots to where the first PC, IBM's 5150, was just 25 years ago. It's a technology that will only get better with time.

As someone who tracks technological advances in the fields of material sciences, semiconductors, wireless, and voice recognition technology on a daily basis, I find it hard to imagine how robotic technology can do anything but get better. And as it does, people will find an increasing number of uses for such robots.

Foolish final word
Neither Harris & Harris nor iRobot is guaranteed to perform at a level comparable to Microsoft or Dell, and may, in fact, do quite poorly. Therefore, I'm not suggesting that you invest all of your child's Coverdell contribution into these stocks. I do believe, however, that if your child is still 10 or more years away from college, you should find a small place in their college-planning portfolio to take a more aggressive position.

The world is going to change a lot in the next 12 years. If you want to find that next 50-bagger, I encourage you to think about what kids might be carrying on the bus in 2019. Personally, I won't be at all surprised if the bus is powered by a fuel cell and kids are playing with quantum computers and solar-powered robotic toys.

If that sounds unlikely, I would only say this: Fifty or 20 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that many of the kids on school buses today would be carrying laptop computers and listening to devices with incredibly powerful data storage capabilities that could store 15,000 songs.

And yet, this is precisely what's come to pass.

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Microsoft and Dell are Inside Value recommendations. Dell is also a Stock Advisor selection. Harris & Harris is a Rule Breakers pick. Try out any of our newsletters with a free 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology. He owns stock in all of the companies mentioned in this article except Dell. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.