Part 1 – The Early Years: Early Childhood to the Annus Mirabilis
“What an Einstein!” – A common declaration of uncommon genius.
Albert Einstein, the embodiment of that genius, entered this world on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Wuttemberg, Germany to Hermann and Pauline. Young Albert was less than a year old when the family moved to Munich in 1880.
In Munich, Hermann Einstein founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie along with Albert’s uncle; a company that manufactured electrical equipment. It was a high-tech company of its time that provided the first electric lighting for the Oktoberfest as well as cable infrastructure for Schwabing, a suburb of Munich.
Young Albert was influenced by his father’s work and helped to awaken his young imagination. Albert later recounted the time, when he was five, that his father showed him a pocket compass. His native intuition told him that something in empty space was making the needle move, leaving “a deep and lasting impression” on Einstein.
A common urban myth is that Einstein didn’t do well in school as a boy. It’s likely more the case that school didn’t do well for Einstein. Despite speech problems as a young child, Albert was a top student in elementary school.
But his mind was elsewhere, not in the typically stifling environment of school. In 1889, when Albert was ten, Max Talmud, a medical student and family friend, fed Albert’s young intellect and yearning imagination by introducing him to science and philosophy through texts such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reasoning and Euclid’s Elements; a book that Einstein called his “holy little geometry book”.
By the age of twelve, Albert has taught himself Euclidean geometry with only the help of a school booklet, and then moved on to calculus. Clearly no ordinary school would satisfy Einstein’s intellect and emerging vision of the world around him.
By the age of fifteen Albert had written his first scientific paper, The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.
Like any teen, however, Albert rebelled. While attending the progressive Luitpold Gymnasium, where his father intended him to pursue the study of electrical engineering, Albert clashed with what he considered the stifling school regimen, he later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.
In 1894 the family business failed and the Einsteins moved to Italy, first to Milan and shortly after to Pavia, leaving Albert behind to finish high school. In the spring of 1895, he left Munich to join his family.
Albert decided to forgo high school and apply for attendance at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Having no high school diploma he was required to take an entrance exam which he failed. Einstein was 16 years old. He later wrote that it was this same year that he conducted his first and most famous thought experiment; visualizing traveling alongside a beam of light.
After completing high school in Aarau, Switzerland Einstein finally enrolled in ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in 1896. Albert also renounced his German citizenship to avoid the draft with the approval of his father. Albert gained Swiss citizenship in 1901, and maintained it for the rest of his life.
Einstein studied mathematics and physics with the intention of becoming a teacher, graduating in 1901. During his years at ETH, Albert formed a friendship with Mileva Maric, the only woman at ETH studying mathematics. The friendship turned to romance leading to the birth, in early 1902, of Lieserl Einstein. Such things being something of a scandal in the day, the pregnancy was kept secret and Albert never even sees the child. The fate of Lieserl is hard to pin down, with some reports that she died in childhood.
Albert and Mileva were married in 1902 and had two sons in the marriage, Hans Albert, born on 1904, and Eduard Tete, born in 1910.
There is ongoing speculation of just how influential Mileva is in the development of Einstein’s most significant theories. As the marriage progresses however, it is apparent that Albert is not an ideal husband. They are divorced in 1919.
Unlike Mileva, who finds work teaching in Zurich after leaving ETH, Albert was unable to find a teaching post, even after nearly two years of searching. Through the help of a close friend, Albert finally secures a permanent position at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern – the patent office.
And it was here, in the ensuing years of the early 20th century, that Albert would change the world.
Many today view Einstein’s time spent as a patent clerk as something of a “black hole”, if you will pardon the pun. An occupation that was a complete waste of time. Others argue that the early years of the new century were foundational ones for Einstein; an arugment that evidence seems to support.
Einstein worked at the patent office with Michele Boso, a friend from his college days. The two formed a weekly discussion group with some of their Bern friends to talk about science and philosophy. The works of Poincare, Hume, and Mach were topics of study and discussion, helping to further shape and influence Einstein’s outlook on science and philosophy.
In addition, his work at the patent office wasn’t necessarily boring and uninteresting. Einstein was responsible for evaluating patent applications for electromagnetic devices. Ideas that dealt with the transmission of electrical signals and the electro-mechanical synchronization of time; two technical problems of the day that were prominent in Einstein’s thought experiments and led to his revolutionary theories regarding the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.
And, of course, it was while employed at the patent office in Bern, working in his spare time, that Einstein published what has come to be known as the Annus Mirabilis Papers – arguably his greatest work, proposing theories that henceforth changed physics and Man’s understanding of the world.
Four papers published in 1905 secured Einstein’s place in the world of science and human affairs.
Einstein’s “Wonderful Year” produced:
· A paper on the theory of light “quanta”, or the particulate nature of light.
· A paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, leading to the special theory of relativity.
· A paper on the equivalence of energy and matter, extrapolating from his theory of special relativity the most famous equation of the modern world: E=mc2