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Einstein The Inventor
The practical engineering activities of the greatest twentieth-century theoretician nourished his thought and changed our world
Winter 1991 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Throughout much of his life, Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist, was actively involved with inventors and inventing. Not only did he serve as a patent examiner in the Swiss Federal Patent Office—at a time when inventions in electric light, communications, and power were proliferating—but afterward he repeatedly served as an expert witness in patent cases and even patented and tried to market inventions of his own.
His biographers have tended to dismiss his interest in invention as peripheral, but Einstein’s own activities leave another impression. Between 1910 and 1930 he often save advice to patent applicants and companies involved in patent litigation, and as he took out patents on a surprisingly large variety of inventions, he did so not with the amateur’s fleeting interest but meticulously, thoroughly, and professionally. The possible financial reward undoubtedly stimulated him, but he also seems to have simply enjoyed inventing things, as did many of the professional inventors who were his contemporaries.
Einstein, born in 1879, grew up among engineers. His father, Hermann, and uncle, Jakob, operated a Munich factory that produced electrical machinery, especially generators, and between 1886 and 1893 Jakob Einstein obtained six patents in the company’s name, covering arc-light improvements and devices for measuring electrical currents. Despite their achievements, the Einsteins were unable to compete successfully with the much larger German electrical manufacturers that sprang up in the 1890s, and the company failed in 1894. But by then Albert Einstein, who was fifteen, seems already to have absorbed an interest in electrical technology and invention.
Perhaps his background encouraged Einstein to think visually, as have many engineers and inventors. In his Autobiographical Notes he describes his thinking as a process involving the transformation of received sense impressions into a series of memory pictures. He believed that thinking began when he found a certain memory picture recurring in a number of these series. He then used this common memory picture to relate the hitherto unconnected series. “Such an element,” he observed, “becomes … a concept.” Einstein thought in terms of such concepts and often did not translate them into words until he needed to communicate verbally with others. His use of such concepts is analogous to a strongly verbal person’s use of sophisticated verbal abstractions. For instance, Einstein might visually imagine the characteristics common to various visual manifestations of gravity such as the fall of an apple or the motion of the planets. The historian of science Gerald Holton has found that certain images appear often in Einstein’s works: watches, light signals, locomotives, lightning bolts, and so on.
A classic example of creative visual thinking among inventors involves Elmer Sperry, the early-twentieth-century American pioneer in feedback controls and the holder of more than 350 patents. An associate recalled that he had “often seen [Sperry] seemingly just looking into the air, when all at once he would pick up a pad and hold it at arms length, then with a pencil in the other hand he would begin to draw. This habit aroused my wonder to such an extent that one day I asked him why he held his pad up in the air. … In his answer he seemed to disregard me and the question entirely but said with one of his quick motions, ‘It’s there! Don’t you see it. …’ Whatever he saw he saw 100% perfect, there in the air, but it took a long time and many changes to reproduce in wheels the thing which he saw.”
Similarly, Thomas Edison, as the historian Reese Jenkins has observed, had a mental thesaurus of visual forms that he often combined in order to solve problems in inventing his telegraph devices; these forms included the dual solenoid, the ratchet-wheel escapement, the rotating drum and stylus, and the polarized relay. And Robert Fulton, the steamboat pioneer, urged would-be inventors to “sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc., like a poet among the letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thoughts, in which a new arrangement transmits a new idea to the world.” The historian Eugene Ferguson has written that we err if we conclude that to visualize is to simplify, for the complex symbols with which inventors think “cannot be reduced to unambiguous verbal descriptions.” Einstein on countless occasions imagined events, combined them ingeniously, and conducted visual “thought experiments.”
His early education probably contributed to his powerful visual thinking. Holton has pointed out that the educational theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, an eighteenth-century Swiss educational reformer, influenced teaching at the local school at Aarau, where Einstein studied in his teens. Pestalozzi had been an ardent advocate of visual understanding, and the curriculum at the school featured drawing courses, laboratory work, and the use of maps and other visual material. Einstein flourished there, and when he was only sixteen he conducted his first great thought experiment, involving light, space, and motion, which some believe foreshadowed his special theory of relativity. Nonetheless his final grades, received in 1896, show him to have been only middling in freehand and technical drawing.