Join @USNatArchives today on Twitter for our #ArchivesFacialHair Hashtag Party. Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew from the National Archives History Office.
German-born and Swiss-educated theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is possibly best known for his mass—energy equivalence formula, E = MC2 (Energy = Mass x Speed of Light2), dubbed the “world’s most famous equation.”
Or, maybe he’s best known for his bushy mustache!
Einstein was born at Ulm in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire on March 14, 1879, to an Ashkenazi Jewish family. He attended Luitpold Gymnasium (now known as Einstein Gymnasium) in Munich for his primary and secondary schooling. Contrary to popular belief that Einstein was a lazy student, he earned top marks in throughout his education while teaching himself algebra and Euclidean geometry in one summer at the age of 12.
Einstein, however, had disdain for the school’s regimen and teaching method—rote learning. Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition, Einstein believed that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost using this technique and often clashed with authorities over the topic.
In 1895 Einstein completed his secondary education at the Argovian Cantonal Gymnasium in Aarau, Switzerland. The next year, he entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich for a four-year mathematics and physics teaching diploma program. He also renounced his German citizenship to avoid military service, and in 1901, he received Swiss citizenship. He also began working in the Swiss Patent Office, during which time he completed his most successful work.
1905 was a highly significant year in Einstein’s life. It is referred to as his “annus mirabilis” or miracle year. During this year, Einstein published four groundbreaking papers: the first on the theory of photoelectric effect, the second explained Brownian motion, the third introduced the idea of special relativity, and the fourth on the equivalence of energy and mass. He also completed his thesis on April 30, 1905, and was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich for his dissertation A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. This incredible year for Einstein brought him to the forefront of the academic world at just 26 years old.
As his notoriety within the academic world grew, so did the positions he was offered. In 1914 Einstein accepted an offer of a professorship without teaching duties at the University of Berlin. He was also elected president of the German Physical Society in 1916 and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in 1917.
In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” The discoveries and influence Einstein had on science are unparalleled; however, he always regarded his major achievements as stepping stones for the next advance.
As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power, Einstein knew he couldn’t remain in Germany. He formally surrendered his German passport and citizenship to the German consulate in Antwerp, Belgium, on March 28, 1933, and on October 17, 1933, Einstein arrived in the United States. After that, he left the U.S. only once, in 1935 to travel to Bermuda to apply to U.S. citizenship. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940.
On the verge of World War II, Einstein endorsed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the possible development of “an extremely powerful new type of bomb” by the Germans. He recommended that the United States begin research on this new type of weapon as well. The letter was a key stimulus for the U.S. to investigate the use nuclear weapons as the United States entered World War II.
This investigation led to the creation of the Manhattan Project. A year before Einstein’s death, he remarked in a letter to his friend Linus Pauling that “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.”
On April 17, 1955, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which caused internal bleeding. He was rushed to the Princeton Hospital but passed away the following morning at age 76. Princeton Hospital pathologist Thomas Stotltz Harvey performed the autopsy on Einstein’s body and removed Einstein’s brain without the permission of his family. He hoped that the neuroscience of the future would be able to discover what made Einstein so intelligent. His body was cremated and his ashes spread at an unknown location.