A noncontacting instrument for measuring the microtopography of metallic surfaces has been developed to the point where the feasibility of constructing a prototype instrument has been demonstrated. The resolution of the preprototype unit is 30 Å perpendicular to the surface and 4000 Å in the plane of the surface. Inherent noise in the perpendicular direction corresponds to 3 Å or one atomic layer. By using a typical field emitter with radius of 100 Å, an ultimate limit of 200 Å would be expected for the horizontal resolution. Topographic maps of an infrared diffraction grating have been measured in order to demonstrate the performance of the instrument in measuring a well characterized surface. The instrument has been shown to conform to the Fowler-Nordheim description of field emission while spaced at the usual operating distances from the surface. When moved to within 30 Å of the surface, its performance is compatible with Simmons' theory of MVM tunneling. In the MVM mode, the instrument is capable of performing a noncontacting measurement of the position of a surface to within about 3 Å. The instrument can be used in surface science experiments to study the density of single and multiple atom steps on single crystal surfaces, adsorption of gases, and processes involving electronic excitations at surfaces.