Who Was Albert Einstein?
Albert Einstein was a German mathematician and physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. In the following decade, he immigrated to the U.S. after being targeted by the German Nazi Party.
His work also had a major impact on the development of atomic energy. In his later years, Einstein focused on unified field theory. With his passion for inquiry, Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century.
Albert Einstein’s Life in Photos
Early Life & Family
Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish family. His father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer who, with his brother, founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a Munich-based company that mass-produced electrical equipment.
Einstein’s mother, the former Pauline Koch, ran the family household. Einstein had one sister, Maja, born two years after him.
Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution’s rigid pedagogical style.
He also had what were considered speech challenges, though he developed a passion for classical music and playing the violin, which would stay with him into his later years. Most significantly, Einstein’s youth was marked by deep inquisitiveness and inquiry.
Towards the end of the 1880s, Max Talmud, a Polish medical student who sometimes dined with the Einstein family, became an informal tutor to young Einstein. Talmud had introduced his pupil to a children’s science text that inspired Einstein to dream about the nature of light.
Thus, during his teens, Einstein penned what would be seen as his first major paper, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”
Hermann Einstein relocated the family to Milan, Italy, in the mid-1890s after his business lost out on a major contract. Einstein was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium.
Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Einstein allegedly withdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parents understood Einstein’s perspective but were concerned about his future prospects as a school dropout and draft dodger.
Einstein was eventually able to gain admission into the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, specifically due to his superb mathematics and physics scores on the entrance exam.
He was still required to complete his pre-university education first, and thus attended a high school in Aarau, Switzerland helmed by Jost Winteler. Einstein lived with the schoolmaster’s family and fell in love with Winteler’s daughter, Marie. Einstein later renounced his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen at the dawn of the new century.
After graduating, Einstein faced major challenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated some professors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studying independently.
Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving a referral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office. While working at the patent office, Einstein had the time to further explore ideas that had taken hold during his studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and thus cemented his theorems on what would be known as the principle of relativity.
In 1905—seen by many as a “miracle year” for the theorist—Einstein had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best-known physics journals of the era. Two focused on the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. The two others, which outlined E=MC2 and the special theory of relativity, were defining for Einstein’s career and the course of the study of physics.