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Albert Einstein (1879-1955)




Albert Einstein in 1905

(Trustees of the Estate of Albert Einstein) 

So, who was Albert Einstein?

Albert Einstein was born on 14th March, 1879 at Ulm, Germany. He spent his early life in Munich, where his family owned a small manufacturing business. He studied Judaism at home, where he also was taught to play the violin. He showed a great interest in Mathematics and taught himself Euclidian geometry at the age of 12.

What sort of education did Albert receive?

Albert Einstein began school in Munich, but does not seem to have been particularly interested in what was offered there. Failure of the family business, when Albert was 15, caused his family to leave Munich for Milan. He stayed there for a year and then moved to Switzerland, where he continued his education at school in Arrau. Einstein hoped to become an electrical engineer and, at the second attempt, enrolled at the Swiss National Polytechnic in Zurich in 1896.

It seems that he continued to show little respect for his teachers, as he was not a regular attender at lectures. He spent considerable time studying physics on his own. Despite the lack of time in lecture halls, he graduated as a teacher of physics and mathematics in 1900, but was unable to obtain a post in the university. It has been suggested that he had not impressed his professors enough, which is perhaps not surprising, given his attitude, and so did not receive their all-important backing for an academic career.

What did he do next?

Albert Einstein became a temporary teacher of mathematics, first at the Technical High School in Winterthur, and secondly at a private school at Schaffhausen.

In 1902 he began work at the Swiss patent office in Bern as a technical expert third class. He remained there until 1909, having been promoted, in 1906, to technical expert second class! He married Mileva Maric, by whom he had two sons, in 1903. They later divorced.

During his time there, Albert Einstein devoted a great deal of his spare time to the study of theoretical physics, and in 1905, received his doctorate for a thesis entitled On a new determination of molecular dimensions. He also published three important papers on theoretical physics. In the first of these he used Planck's quantum hypothesis to describe the electromagnetic radiation of light. In his second paper, Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in that the laws of physics must have the same form in any frame of reference. He assumed the speed of light remained constant in all frames of reference. He also showed the equivalence between mass and energy, The third of his papers was concerned with statistical mechanics.

In 1908 Albert Einstein became a lecturer at Bern University, where he made attempts to extend his special theory of relativity. After his resignation from the patent office, he became professor of physics at the University of Zurich in 1909. Next he moved to Prague University in 1911, and in 1912 produced his general theory of relativity, before taking up a chair at the Swiss National Polytechnic in Zurich.

In 1914, he took up the directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin. Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915.

From 1919, Einstein became increasingly known internationally and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity, but for his work in 1905 on the photoelectric effect. During 1921, he visited the United States of America to raise funds for the planned Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In 1932 he was offered a position at Princeton, New Jersey, which he was to share with his post in Berlin. He commenced in December 1932 and due to the situation in Nazi Germany never went back home.

He travelled widely and visited the world's leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Leiden, Madrid and Paris. It would now be a simple matter to accept an academic position, once so elusive in 1901.

In 1939, along with other physicists, Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt about the possibility of manufacturing an atomic bomb and the likelihood that the German government would do so. This forced the U.S.A. to build and use the weapon, even though Einstein was not involved and remained ignorant of the work.

After the World War II, Einstein became active in the cause of international disarmament.

In 1952, he declined the offer of the presidency of Israel and continued his work towards the world renouncing nuclear weapons.

Albert Einstein died on 18th April, 1955 at Princeton and was cremated that day at Trenton, New Jersey. He is, perhaps, the best known scientist of the 20th century.