Childhood of Albert Einstein

By Mahesh Paudyal

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He was the first child born to Hermann and Pauline Einstein, a bourgeois Jewish couple married three years earlier. Hermann began work as a merchant in the featherbed industry, but when his business collapsed, he moved his family to Munich to start an electrical-engineering business with his brother Jakob. This venture was largely supported by the Kochs, Pauline Einstein's parents. Pauline, a talented musician, introduced her son to the piano when he was a small boy and encouraged his passion for the violin, an instrument he studied from ages six to thirteen.

In 1881, Hermann and Pauline had a second child, Maria. Called Maja by all who knew her, she was Albert's closest childhood friend. Her biography of Einstein, written in 1924, is the source of much of the lore about Einstein's early years. For instance, Maria relates that when Einstein was born, his mother worried that his head was too large and his grandmother exclaimed that he was "much too fat." A few years later, when Einstein was four or five, he had his first scientific experience: his father showed him a pocket compass and the young boy marveled at the fact that regardless of where the compass was turned, the needle always pointed north. Einstein thus demonstrated an interest in science and problem-solving even before he entered school.

Einstein's formal education began at age six, when he enrolled in the Petersschule on Blumenstrasse, a Catholic elementary school in Munich. Since his parents had little interest in religious affiliations, they cared more about the school's academic standards than its religious affiliation. Einstein did well in school, but he was a quiet child and kept his distance from his friends in the class. He was uncomfortable with the principle of absolute obedience and the military drills that dominated the school's atmosphere. The young Einstein preferred to build houses of cards and play with his sister at home.

At the age of ten, Einstein was accepted into the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, a formal and respected institution that emphasized Latin and Greek over mathematics and science. Unhappy with the educational program at school, Einstein turned to a course of personal study outside of school. His Uncle Jakob lent him a book of algebra and sent him math puzzles to solve. In addition, a twenty-one-year-old medical student named Max Talmud, a friend of Einstein's family, lent him books on popular science and philosophy that the young boy eagerly devoured.

At the age of eleven, Einstein went through an intense but brief religious phase in which he observed the true dietary laws, read the Bible avidly, and composed short hymns to the glory of God. However, midway through his preparation to become a minister in the church, he turned away from church affairs, and drew himself towards science.

In 1893, Einstein's father and uncle sold their business and moved south to Pavia in Italy. They planned for the boy to remain in a boarding house in Munich to complete his education in the gymnasium before joining his family. However, after six more unhappy months at school, Einstein persuaded a doctor to write him an official note diagnosing him with "neurasthenic exhaustion." This provided him with an excuse for leaving school and moving to Italy. Einstein may also have been motivated by the desire to escape military conscription, since German law stipulated that if a boy left the country before the age of seventeen, he would be exempted from military service.

Einstein's unexpected arrival in Pavia surprised and dismayed his parents. The boy announced that he intended to renounce both his German citizenship and his Jewish faith; these renunciations testified to his isolation and independence from the world around him. However, he reassured his parents that he planned to study for the entrance examinations at the Federal Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich, an advanced technical institute.

Though Einstein studied physics diligently during the summer of 1895 in preparation from the Zurich Polytechnic, he failed the necessary exams for admission. At the suggestion of the principal of the Polytechnic, he spent the next year in a Swiss secondary school in Aarau preparing to retake the examination. There, he boarded in the home of Jost Winteler, a teacher at the school. Einstein got along well with the seven Winteler children and enjoyed his year in Aarau immensely. By the time he received his diploma in 1896, he had become a confident, self-assured, and increasingly communicative individual, a far cry from the quiet and lonely boy of his gymnasium days.

Einstein enrolled in the Zurich Polytechnic in October 1896, although he was still six months short of the official minimum age of 18. He participated in a four-year teachers' training program that would qualify him as a specialized high school teacher of mathematics and physics. He lived in student lodgings in the district of Hottingen, first in the apartment of Frau Henriette Hagi and then at a small hostel run by Stephanie Markwalder. Throughout his four years of study, he lived on the modest income of 100 Swiss francs per month, most of which was provided by his maternal grandparents, the Kochs.

Einstein's decision to enroll in a teachers' training program may seem surprising in light of his own unhappiness as a schoolboy in Munich; the joy he took in learning came from his informal education at home, not from his experiences in a school with formally trained instructors. However, his teaching course may have been an attempt to reach a compromise with his family, which was in financial trouble at the time. The factory run by his father and uncle had failed in 1896 and most of the family funds were lost. Thus, despite Einstein's desire to master the frontiers of physics, he also recognized the importance of securing a steady income.

Einstein did not abandon physics, however, indeed studying it seriously in the laboratory of the head physics professor at the Polytechnic, Heinrich Friedrich Weber, who was best known for his contributions to electrical engineering. Yet although Einstein admired the professor's achievements, he was distressed to learn that Weber, a staunch believer in classical physics, was hopelessly old- fashioned, dismissing of all the advancements in electricity and magnetism. Once again, as in high school, Einstein relied on independent study: he read widely the works of Maxwell, Kirchoff, Hertz, Helmholtz, and contemporary physicists. Einstein also benefited from his studies with his mathematics lecturer, Hermann Minkowski, who would later prove instrumental in supporting Einstein to propound his world famous theory of relativity.

Although Einstein did not have a large social circle in Zurich, he made several close friends who would have a strong impact on his future. One such friend was Marcel Grossman, a mathematics student one year his senior. Grossman's father was a factory owner in Zurich and Marcel was the product of a liberal Swiss environment. Einstein viewed his friend as a model student and relied heavily on his lecture notes whenever it came time for final examinations. Grossman continued to come to Einstein's aid in later years by helping him to find a job, and by working on the mathematical calculations of the general relativity theory.

Another of Einstein's closest friends was Michele Angelo Besso, a mechanical engineer living in Zurich. Einstein met Besso through a music group in Zurich, which Einstein often joined on Saturday afternoons to play his violin. He encouraged Einstein to read the works of Ernst Mach, a contemporary Austrian philosopher. Mach's works contributed a lot in helping Einstein move ahead with his theories in physics.

Finally, Einstein also became very close with Mileva Maric, a Hungarian student three years his senior at the Zurich Polytechnic. Mileva was not a brilliant student, but a hard and determined worker. Although Einstein was popular with many of the women at the Polytechnic, his relationship with Mileva became particularly intense between the autumn of 1899 and the summer of 1900. In January 1903, when Einstein had a secure and well-paying job at the patent office in Bern, the couple married.

The relationship between Einstein and Mileva has been a subject of interest for many. The letters Einstein wrote her contained detailed descriptions of his scientific work and his reactions to his studies. Some scholars believe that she made significant contributions in helping Einstein develop his theories in physics.