12 Interesting Documents from the Digital Einstein Papers
Earlier this month, Princeton University Press and The Einstein Papers Project at CalTech made more than 5000 of the famous scientist's documents freely available online, in both their original language and in translated text. Previously, the documents had been available as books, which had been published at a rate of one volume every two or three years since 1987. "Many people don’t have quick access to [the books]," says CalTech professor Diana Kormos-Buchwald, director of the Einstein Papers Project. “We hope to bring it to teachers and students who might be interested in reading Einstein in his own words. He was, no doubt, one of the most influential scientists of the last 100 years, but he was also a public figure and a personality of great influence during difficult political and social periods, and at a time when scientific community was much smaller. I don’t know of any living scientist to whom people would turn the way they did then [to him]. So we hope that these scholarly volumes will now be more accessible.“
Both the books and the files will continue to expand; there are 30,000 documents written by and to Einstein, so there's a long way to go—but there's still plenty to keep you busy: You'll find Einstein's birth certificate, early essays, and correspondence with other big scientific names (Marie Curie! Max Planck!). We perused the archive to find just a few of the fascinating documents within.
Einstein left his grammar school in Germany in 1894, when he was just 15. He didn't have a degree, but he did have a plan: He’d take his Matura tests—which would give him the equivalent of a high school degree—and then attend the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School (also called the Polytechnic). He petitioned Ablin Herzog, director of the Polytechnic, for entrance to the school. Typically, the school only took in students that were 18 and already had their Maturas. Herzog wrote to Einstein family friend Gustav Maier that “it is not advisable to withdraw a student from the institution in which we had begun his studies even if his is a so-called ‘child prodigy,’” but relented and let Einstein take the Maturas anyway in October 1895.
Einstein’s math and science grades were good, but he was lacking in other areas, so Herzog insisted he take another year of secondary school; Einstein started at the Argau School along the Aare River in Switzerland shortly after his attempt at the Maturas. His school records indicate that he had private lessons in French, Chemistry, and Natural History and was “exempted from singing and gymnastics upon request.” In a report on a music exam, instructor J. Ryffel notes that Einstein, playing the violin, “even sparkled by rendering an adagio from a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding.”
In September 1896, when Einstein was 17, he received his final grades; as one might expect, he excelled in math, garnering a 6—the highest possible score—in Algebra and Geometry. He scored a 5 - 6 in physics, and 5s in Italian, History, and Natural Drawing.
Later that month he took his Matura exams (they begin here), which consisted of seven written exams and oral exams that were open to the public; students were quizzed for at least 10 minutes on the subjects they’d taken written examinations on as well as history and descriptive geometry. Einstein noted in his Matura exams that he planned to “study Physics and Mathematics at Department 6 of the Federal Polytechnikum.” He passed, garnering the highest average in his class—5 1/3 out of a possible 6—which allowed him direct admission to professional school. (You can read more about the process of taking the exams here.)
For his in-class French exam, Einstein wrote that “a happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much upon the future. But on the other hand, young people especially like to contemplate bold projects. Also, it is natural for a serious young man to envision his desired goals with the greatest possible precision.” He then outlined his plans to enroll in the polytechnical school in Zurich—“if I am lucky and pass my examinations”—where he will study math and physics for four years: “I suppose I will become a teacher of these branches of natural science, opting for the theoretical part of these sciences.”
He might have known exactly what he wanted to do, but his French was lacking, as you can see by reading the footnotes here. “He made quite a few mistakes,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “This was Switzerland, where pupils study German and French for many years, they are required to be at least bilingual, in addition to a foreign language, but Einstein had not rigorously studied modern foreign languages while in a classical gymnasium in Munich, Germany. Therefore, he had a lot of catching up to do.”
Anna Schmid was the sister-in-law of the owner of the hotel where Einstein was staying in Mettmenstetten, Switzerland. At that time, Kormos-Buchwald says, “Girls and women had these albums in which they asked people to write a dedication.” In August 1899, Einstein wrote a poem in Anna’s album:
You girl small and fine
What should I inscribe for you here?
I could think of many a think
Including also a kiss
On the tiny little mouth.
If you’re angry about it
Do not start to cry
The best punishment is—
To give me one too.
This little greeting is
In remembrance of your rascally little friend.
“Einstein often wrote poems,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “They were always dedicated to someone, more in the genre of a ditty or amusing remembrance than actual literary poetry. There are poems throughout the volumes.”
Einstein began the process of applying for Swiss citizenship in 1899. The process, which took more than a year, required not only a background check by the police—the detective noted that Einstein was “a very eager, industrious and extremely solid man. (Teetotaler)”—but also an assessment for military service. A doctor’s exam revealed that he suffered from varicose veins, flat feet, and excessive foot perspiration. He was deemed unfit to serve.
6. Letters Seeking Employment
After graduating, Einstein worked as a private teacher and wrote a number of letters to universities in Germany inquiring after positions, but was unsuccessful in finding a job. “Last summer I completed my studies at the mathematical-physical department of the Zurich Polytechnikum,” he wrote to physicist Otto Wiener, a professor at the Physics Institute of the University of Leipzig in 1900. “I am taking the liberty of asking whether you might need an assistant. … I would appreciate if you could drop me a few lines and let me know about my prospects of getting such a position now or possibly next autumn.” In August, he traveled to Zurich to ask about an assistant position to Professor Adolph Hurwitz at the ETH.
In 1901, he applied for a position at the secondary school of the Technical School in Brugdorf, and was turned down. That same year, Einstein sent a copy of an article inspired by Wilhelm Ostwald’s work in general chemistry to the professor, who also worked at the University of Leipzig. “On this occasion permit me also to inquire whether you might have use for a mathematical physicist familiar with absolute measurements,” he wrote. “If I permit myself to make such an inquiry, it is only because I am without means, and only a position of this kind would offer me the possibility of additional education.” Later, he followed up with another letter that included his address. (Einstein’s father, Hermann, would also write to Ostwald inquiring after a position for his son.) And he believed that he might have had a shot at a position as assistant to Eduard Riecke, director of the Division of Experimental Physics of the Physics Institute at the University of Göttingen if he had not been sabotaged by Heinrich Friedrich Weber, who had once been Einstein’s doctoral advisor. That relationship ended when they had a bitter disagreement, and Einstein switched to another advisor.
“He wished to be an academic,” Kormos-Buchwald says, “[but] there were very few [positions] available for a theoretical physicist at the time. The discipline was evolving. There were only five full professors in Germany, and an assistant or associate position was very difficult to obtain.”
In December 1901, Einstein applied for a position at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern; in June 1902, he got a provisional appointment as Technical Expert third class, with a salary of 3500 francs a year. Two years later, in September 1904, his position was confirmed, and two years after that he was promoted to Technical Expert second class.
Einstein evaluated a number of patents every day, and on December 11, 1907, he wrote that a patent filed jointly by Berlin’s AEG and Bern’s Nageli & Co for an alternating current machine was “incorrectly, imprecisely, and unclearly prepared. … We can go into the specific deficiencies of the description only after the subject matter of the patent has been made clear by a properly prepared claim.”
He would remain with the patent office until 1909.
Ferdinand Springer, publisher of the weekly journal Die Naturwissenschaften, asked Einstein to write a piece about the work of theoretical physicist Max Planck, who had recently been appointed as rector of Berlin University. “We, his close and his distant colleagues, wish joyfully to take this opportunity to celebrate with gratitude the achievements that science owes to his creative activity,” Einstein wrote.
“Max Planck as Scientist” appeared in the journal in late October 1913. Three weeks before publication, Einstein confessed in a letter that he hadn’t yet begun to write it. This, Kormos-Buchwald says, was pretty typical: “Einstein pondered about his writings for a while, and then wrote things down very quickly, once he had it all clearly formulated in his mind.”
In mid-October 1914, Einstein wrote “Manifesto to the Europeans” in response to a document, signed by 93 German scientists, that supported Germany’s aims in the first World War. Einstein disagreed with them. “Through technology the world has become smaller; the states of the large peninsula of Europe appear today as close to each other as the cities of each small Mediterranean peninsula appeared in ancient times,” he wrote, continuing (emphasis Einstein's),
In the needs and experiences of every individual, based on his awareness of manifold of relations, Europe—one could almost say the world—already outlines itself as an element of unity.
It would consequently be a duty of the educated and well-meaning Europeans to at least make the attempt to prevent Europe—on account of its deficient organization as a whole—from suffering the same tragic fate as ancient Greece once did. Should Europe too gradually exhaust itself and thus perish from fratricidal war?
The struggle raging today will likely produce no victor; it will leave probably only the vanquished. Therefore, it seems not only good, but rather bitterly necessary that educated men of all nations marshall their influence such that—whatever the still uncertain end of the war may be—the terms of peace shall not become the wellspring of future wars. The evident fact that through this war all European relational conditions slipped into an unstable and plasticized state should rather be used to create an organic European whole. The technological and intellectual conditions for this are extant.
It need not be deliberated herein by which manner this (new) ordering in Europe is possible. We want merely to emphasize very fundamentally that we are firmly convinced that the time has come where Europe must act as one in order to protect her soil, her inhabitants, and her culture.
“This is an extraordinary document,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “Einstein thought the war was wrong, and it was a brave act to sign this document at a time when many of his colleagues were nationalistically inclined.”
One year later, he followed “Manifesto” with My Opinion of the War, which began “The psychological roots of war are—in my opinion—biologically founded in the aggressive characteristics of the male creature. … This aggressive tendency comes to the fore whenever individual males are placed side by side, and even more so when relatively close-knit societies have to deal with each other. Almost without fail they will end up in disputes that escalate into quarrels and murder unless special precautions are taken to prevent such occurrences.”
10. The Nightmare
In its December 25, 1917 issue, the Berliner Tageblatt devoted a section of the paper to the possible discontinuation of Germany’s Arbitur exam, which consisted of written exams lasting from 8am to noon, followed by oral exams from 2 to 6pm, for as long as six consecutive days. In his essay, Einstein wrote,
I consider the final secondary school exam that follows normal school education not only unnecessary but even harmful. … The fear of the exams as well as the large mass of topical subjects that have to be assimilated by memorization harm the health of many young men to a considerable degree. This fact is too well known to need to be verified in detail. But I will nevertheless mention the well known fact that many men in the most varied professions have been plagued, into their later years, by nightmares whose origins trace back to the final secondary school exam.
And in a criticism that sounds like it could come from a teacher today, Einstein writes that the exam “lowers the level of teaching in the last school years. Instead of an exclusively substance-oriented occupation with the individual subjects, one too often finds a lapse into a shallow drilling of the students for the exam.” In other words, professors were teaching to the test.
Einstein married Mileva Marić in 1903, but by 1914, things had soured (in fact, Einstein had started an affair with his married cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, two years earlier). The Einstein family moved from Zurich to Berlin, and the scientist wrote his wife this letter of rules she had to obey if she wanted to stay married:
A. You make sure
1) that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order and repair
2) that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room.
3) that my bedroom and office are always kept neat, in particular, that the desk is available to me alone.
B. You will renounce all personal relations with me as far as maintaining them is not absolutely required for social reasons. Specifically, you do without
1) my sitting at home with you
2) my going out or traveling together with you.
C. In your relations with me you commit yourself explicitly to adhering to the following points:
1) You are neither to expect intimacy from me nor reproach me in any way.
2) You must desist immediately from addressing me if I request it.
3) You must leave my bedroom or office immediately without protest if I so request.
D. You commit yourself not to disparage me in word or in deed in front of my children.
Before WWI broke out, Marić took the children and returned to Zurich. “This was painful,” Kormos-Buchwald says, “and divorce took many years, since Mileva returned to Switzerland and Einstein stayed in Berlin. They were separated for four years.” During that time, Einstein lived with Lowenthal, which he admitted to in a deposition:
It is correct that I committed adultery. I have been living together with my cousin, the widow Elsa Einstein, divorced Lowenthal, for about 4.5 years and have been continuing these intimate relations since then. My wife, the Plantiff, has known since the (spring) summer of 1914 that intimate relations exist between me and my cousin. She has made her displeasure known to me.
12. Divorce Agreement
In 1918, Einstein and Marić finally settled on the terms of their divorce. “[It’s] notable that he declared he would give her the Nobel Prize money if he were to receive it, which happened only in late 1922,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “In 1923 he indeed receives the actual prize money and sends it to her. Mileva purchases a home.”
In February 1919, the divorce was granted. A few months later, Lowenthal and Einstein were married.