Einstein The Inventor
The practical engineering activities of the greatest twentieth-century theoretician nourished his thought and changed our world
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.
The school also encouraged Einstein’s interest in electrical technology, the principal study of his physics teacher, August Tuchschmid, and early on the young Einstein mastered Heinrich Hertz’s theories of electrodynamics. His interest in electrical matters was further nurtured at the Federal Polytechnic School and then put to use in the patent office.
Einstein worked as a patent examiner in the Swiss patent office from 1902 to 1909. These were years of rapid development in the electric-power, telephone, and wireless-telegraphy industries. The leading electrical inventors of the time were post-Edisonian; they were mainly university-trained and dealt with electromagnetic-wave phenomena rather than with the earlier wire-telegraph and direct-current electric-lighting systems. Prominent among them were Nikola Tesla, Reginald Fessenden, Lee de Forest, and Michael Pupin. Since most of the patents being issued in Switzerland went to foreign applicants, Einstein would likely have been judging these men’s work. His understanding of electromagnetic phenomena served him well here; at the same time, the inventors’ manipulation of electromagnetic phenomena stimulated his imagination in important ways.
Einstein subsequently acknowledged the contribution that his experiences as a patent examiner made to his intellectual development. “The formulation of patent statements was a blessing,” he wrote. “It gave me the opportunity to think about physics.” It also helped him learn to express himself precisely. On his seventieth birthday he wrote that “a practical profession is a salvation for a man of my type; an academic career compels a young man to scientific production, and only strong characters can resist the temptation of superficial analysis.” The reading and analysis of patent claims and drawings seems to have cultivated not only his visual imagination but also his knowledge of the physical principles that underlay inventors’ practical devices.
After Einstein began work at the patent office, the director, Friedrich Haller, kept him in a provisional status for two years while instructing him and other new examiners in reading applications and drawings and in preparing systematic specifications. With his powers of conceptualization and synthesis, Einstein quickly learned to comprehend the drawings. So prepared, he demanded clarity, both verbal and visual, from inventors seeking patents. Haller insisted that examiners cultivate an extremely critical attitude toward inventors’ claims, assuming that all is false in a patent application. Einstein acknowledged that the technique sharpened his wits, and he emerged a grateful pupil of Haller’s.
To understand what Einstein learned at the patent office, first consider the patenting process itself. Usually an inventor turns to a patent lawyer for guidance through the maze. Once persuaded that the invention is indeed patentable, the lawyer makes a search to determine if the idea has already been patented, and then helps the inventor write out and draw up the technical description and claims of the invention. Ideally a patent claim is broad enough to prevent similar inventions from competing with it but specific enough not to interfere with any existing patents. The process has been compared to a miner’s staking a claim to obtain as much rich ground as possible without either interfering in others’ property or taking possession of worthless territory. When the lawyer and inventor are satisfied with their claims, they file their patent application.
At the patent office the application is registered and sent to an examiner who specializes in its field. The examiner begins a dialogue with the inventor and the attorney to revise the claims so that they faithfully describe the invention in the proper form without infringing on any other patent. The examiner also must discover if the application interferes with any other then in process. If it does, interference proceedings are instituted to determine priority. The examiner often suggests revisions to resolve any conflict and negotiates these with the inventor and the lawyer. Over time these negotiations may involve several rejections by the examiner and substitutions by the inventor.
Einstein mastered the complicated process and ably fulfilled his responsibilities, and in 1904 his provisional status was removed. Two years later he was promoted to examiner second class. Director Haller stated that Einstein had become one of the most valued of the examiners. It was during this period, in 1905, that Einstein published his special theory of relativity, in a paper titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” The essay made reference to magnetic conductors, electrical currents, electromagnetic processes, electromagnetic fields, and electrons, as would the electrical patents Einstein was presumably reading.
He left the patent office in 1909, but he did not abandon his highly developed special skills. In Berlin during the 1920s he served as a paid consultant on patent matters to various individuals and corporations. In November 1920, for instance, Georg Arco, a pioneer inventor of German wireless telegraphy and director of the prominent Company for Wireless Telegraphy, asked Einstein to serve as an expert witness. Arco and his company had worked hard to develop a German system of wireless transmission that avoided infringing on basic patents held by the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. In trying to protect their own cathode-tube patent, they turned to Einstein because he at once understood the science and technology, knew the patent law and process, and was recognized as impartial in his judgments. Einstein had served as an expert witness once before, and his clarity and objectivity had impressed those concerned.
He was careful to maintain his reputation as an impartial and informed expert. In a prefatory paragraph to one report he submitted as a consultant to the firm of Siemens & Halske he wrote that he took great pains to accept such assignments only if he was convinced that justice lay on the side he was representing. He apparently also preferred to represent a social cause in which he believed; he once evaluated an invention for the Society for Cultural Connections between the Soviet Union and Foreign Countries, in Moscow, but then found that the invention lacked merit.
In at least one case Einstein’s patent-related work led directly to pure-science experimentation and theory. As he later wrote, “I was led to the demonstration of the nature of the paramagnetic atom through technical reports I had prepared on the gyromagnetic compass.” In 1915 he served as an expert witness in a gyrocompass patent-infringement suit brought against Elmer Sperry by the German inventor Hermann Anschütz-Kaempfe. In studying the compass in question, Einstein found that it provided an instructive analogy: The rotating Earth was to a precessing gyrocompass as a rotating iron bar was to orbiting electrons. The analogy provided a tangible physical model that led Einstein irresistibly to a theoretical presupposition. Einstein’s reasoning has been described and analyzed by the historian of science Peter Galison in his 1987 book How Experiments End .
Einstein had apparently become interested in gyrocompasses when he was a patent examiner, and his involvement with them persisted after this case finally ended in 1917. In 1926 he outlined gyrocompass improvements of his own, and they were subsequently incorporated in a patent taken out by the firm of Giro, in The Hague, Holland. For a decade he regularly received royalties of several hundred dollars a year on the patent. In 1935 he innovated with gyros again, proposing what he believed would be a radically new and simple mounting with which a gyro wheel could be driven indirectly through air and other friction; the design could be used either for gyrocompasses or for gyroscopic artificial-horizon instruments for airplanes. Five years later he joined another inventor, Gustav Bucky, and a New York patent attorney, Walter Bleston, to seek a manufacturer for the device, and in 1941 he took it to the Sperry Company. Sperry’s patent lawyer predicted that Einstein’s device would be too expensive to build but assured him that an experimental model would be made and tested if the company could find time. There is no record of later discussion of the invention; the inventor, it seems, had not taken into account the many difficulties of producing the device and installing it in a complex system.
Between 1927 and 1930 Einstein and the physicist Leo Szilard together obtained eight patents in Germany, four in Britain, and one each in the United States, Switzerland, and the Netherlands for a refrigeration system they were developing. They also sought ways to commercialize those patents through manufacture. Szilard, trained in engineering as well as physics, had a long-standing involvement with inventions and patents and found creative expression in invention as well as in pure research. When inventive ideas occurred to him, he wrote them down and mailed them to himself to verify the date in case of a later question of priority.
As inventors commonly do, Einstein and Szilard took out several patents covering specific features of their invention and variations on it. Its principal novel component was the so-called Einstein-Szilard pump, which was electromagnetic, not mechanical, as in conventional refrigerators. There are conflicting accounts of its inception. According to one story, the partners were inspired by a newspaper article about a family that had been killed by fumes that leaked from their refrigerator’s mechanical pump. Einstein’s biographer Abraham Pais says the two simply wanted a noiseless refrigerator.
As Szilard and Einstein sought to commercialize their machine, they went so far as to draw up contracts specifying in detail the financial arrangements that would govern relations between them and several prospective manufacturers. Szilard was more deeply involved in the effort than was Einstein, but Einstein discussed the refrigerator with a prominent American engineer, Gano Dunn, during a visit to New York City in 1931, and Dunn took up the matter with the president of the Crocker-Wheeler Electric Manufacturing Company. Crocker-Wheeler’s investigators did some research and found in the patent literature a refrigeration system they believed was similar to Szilard and Einstein’s; it had been patented by Daniel F. Comstock, a research engineer who is remembered as the principal inventor of Technicolor. When Szilard learned about Comstock’s patent, he told Einstein that it had “not the least to do” with their own and asked Einstein to stay in contact with Dunn.
That same year, Einstein and Szilard approached German General Electric (AEG), Germany’s largest electrical manufacturer. Szilard predicted that AEG would find the refrigerator technically impressive but have serious doubts about the market for refrigerators in Germany—not just for theirs but for refrigerators in general. AEG signed on Szilard as a consultant and built one of the Einstein-Szilard machines but never got as far as manufacturing them; improvements in conventional mechanical refrigerators were greatly reducing their noise and the danger of leakage. According to one account, the company found the Einstein-Szilard prototype too noisy to proceed with. AEG made payments to Szilard and Einstein for their patents, but not nearly enough to make them rich.
The refrigerator project was abandoned, but Szilard tried once again to use the technology underlying its pump. In 1942, when Manhattan Project engineers and scientists were debating about the best coolant for their atomic pile, Szilard proposed using liquid bismuth and an electromagnetic pump. He pointed out that liquid bismuth had excellent thermal properties and that the pump, with no moving parts, would not be subject to leaks. His colleagues, however, could not be persuaded to deal with the exotic liquid metal.
The common belief that Einstein, after leaving the Bern patent office, pursued his interest in patent matters and invention in a desultory, even dilettantish way is at best mistaken and at worst the product of a patronizing attitude toward technology. Einstein himself never slighted invention or technology. Judging from his use of physical metaphors in his scientific writing, his preference for visual thinking, and his familiarity with inventions, it is safe to assume that he fully recognized the similarity between the intellectual activity of the creative scientist and that of the creative inventor.
In fact, in 1948 he wrote of the great Austrian physicist Ernst Mach that “Mach’s weakness, as I see it, lies in the fact that he believed more or less strongly that science consists merely of putting experimental results in order; that is, he did not recognize the free constructive element. … He thought that somehow theories arise by means of discovery and not by means of invention .” Invention was for Einstein the manipulation of both concepts and artifacts. He realized that an artifact was a materialized concept. And he learned at the patent office that conceptualizing about artifacts and developing explanations for their behavior could lead to generalized theories about the world of physical phenomena. For Einstein a hard-and-fast line between technology and science simply did not exist.