Albert Einstein: Student & Patent Clerk
For until 1905, the arc of Albert Einstein's life story seemed to bend not toward greatness but toward failure. The son of a middle-class German-Jewish featherbed salesman, the real "baby Einstein" had been alarmingly slow to develop speech; young Albert did not utter his first word until the age of three. It did not take long after that for the boy to begin to display the deep curiosity into the secret workings of the universe for which he would later become famous; at the age of five, he became fascinated by the mystery of what hidden forces caused the needle of a compass always to point north. At the age of 16, he wrote his first serious scientific paper, "On the Investigation of the State of Ether in a Magnetic Field," which was never published but clearly revealed the young man's intellectual potential.
Such intelligence and curiosity did not, however, translate into great success in school. The young Einstein hated the rigid structure and boring memorization that characterized education in late nineteenth-century Germany, receiving mediocre grades and often getting into trouble for rebelling against his teachers' authority. (His seventh-grade teacher, exasperated by young Albert's insubordination, famously told Einstein he "would never get anywhere in life."1) Einstein hated school so much that in 1895, when he was 16 years old, he tried to test out of his last year of high school by taking an early-entrance examination to ETH, the prestigious Swiss Polytechnic University in Zurich. He failed. After a year of boarding school in the tiny Swiss town of Aarau, Einstein finally gained admission to ETH. At the university, Einstein managed to pull down his below-average grades only by regularly copying off the notes of his best friend.2
Einstein graduated in 1900 and sought a job as a teacher of physics. No one would hire him. The frustrated young man would surely have been embarrassed to learn that his father had secretly written to a famous physics professor at the University of Leipzig, essentially begging him to give Albert a chance (and a job). "Please forgive a father," the letter read, "who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son. I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that... he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means.... I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to... write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working. If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant's position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds..."3 The professor, apparently unmoved by Hermann Einstein's intervention on behalf of his son, offered Albert neither words of encouragement nor an academic job.
Instead, the young man escaped unemployment by taking a menial job as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. And even there he failed to make much of an impression; in 1904, his supervisor rejected Einstein's request for a promotion, arguing that he lacked the qualifications to advance from patent clerk third class to patent clerk second class within the Swiss civil bureaucracy.
Even Einstein's personal life seemed headed toward shame and failure. In 1901, he got his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mileva Maric pregnant; early the next year, she gave birth to a daughter named Lieserl. Einstein's German-Jewish family disapproved of his relationship with Mileva, a Serbian Christian, so the unwed couple kept their first-born child's birth a secret from his family and put Lieserl up for adoption; to this day, historians don't know what became of the girl. The eldest child of Albert Einstein may have gone on to live a long and happy life, perhaps even producing a secret line of Einstein descendants. Or she may have died as a baby. Either way, she has been lost to history. Albert Einstein's inability to provide for his first child may be only the most poignant proof of the seemingly lost course of his own life through 1904. If you had run into Albert Einstein on the streets of Bern during those difficult years, you could hardly have imagined you were looking at the world's greatest genius. You might, instead, have felt a certain pity for a young man who was clearly struggling mightily just to find his place in the world.
In 1905, he found it.