6 Priceless Documents That Reveal Key Moments Early in Einstein's Career

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You've probably seen it before on coffee mugs, crocheted pillows, or personal journals. It's one of Albert Einstein's most famous quotes: "I have no special talent, but am only passionately curious."

Einstein wrote this self-effacing description on March 11, 1952 in a letter—seen below—to his biographer Carl Seelig. (The original German: Ich habe keine besondere Begabung, sondern bin nur leidenschaftlich neugierig.) The letter is one of some 200 priceless documents of Einstein's that are held in the library archives at ETH Zurich, the university where the scientist got his undergraduate degree in 1900.

ETH Zurich

As was directed in his will, Einstein's papers went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which holds tens of thousands of his documents. In conjunction with Caltech and Princeton University, Einstein's professional home for 20 years, Hebrew University has made some of these documents searchable (and some viewable) online.

The collection at ETH Zurich is composed of letters and postcards he wrote to friends and colleagues, which were either donated or acquired from private collections, along with university papers associated with his days as a student and teacher there. These papers give us an intimate look at some seminal moments of his famed life long before he became fixed in the public mind as a wild-haired genius.

Mental Floss got to see some of these documents firsthand at the ETH Zurich Library. They're almost never on display, but are kept in a vault under lock and key. You can, however, see much of the collection online.

We've chosen six documents to highlight. For insight about each, we spoke to Michael Gasser, the library's director of archives.

1. EINSTEIN GETS PERMISSION TO TAKE AN EXAM HE'S NOT QUALIFIED FOR … AND FAILS.

ETH Zurich

When Einstein was 16, his family moved from Munich, Germany to Milan, Italy to start a business, and he dropped out of school. "He was just living in Milan for a year," Gasser says. "He didn't go to school there, he studied at home."

He then decided he wanted to go to college at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich—now known as ETH Zurich. But he wasn't 18 and lacked a diploma; both were required by the university. A well-connected friend of the Einstein family, a banker named Gustav Maier, wrote a letter on his behalf to Albin Herzog, the university director, asking that Herzog let Einstein, whom Maier called a wunderkind, take the entrance exam anyway. His plea worked: In the September 25, 1985 reply to Maier, above, Herzog writes that despite his misgivings about a wunderkind, Einstein can take the exam.

Einstein picked up his pencil in October 1895—and failed. He did fine on the mathematics and natural sciences sections but was deemed "insufficient" on language and history. Back to high school Einstein went. He got his diploma a year later at a school in Aargau, near Zurich. There was one upside: While Einstein was still in high school, Friedrich Weber, a physics professor at the university, let Einstein attend his lectures.

2. EINSTEIN IS A NO-SHOW AT ONE OF HIS CLASSES … AND BOMBS IT.

ETH Zurich

Einstein did eventually get into Polytechnic/ETH Zurich, attending from 1896–1900. He did not impress his professors. "He was a strong-headed student in the sense that he attended some courses and skipped others. He was interested in some subjects and fields—especially [theoretical] physics—that were not taught at ETH Zurich at the time. He preferred to read papers at home," Gasser says. "This is clearly reflected in the student file he has. In his third term, he got the worst mark he could get in Switzerland: a 1, for a course on practical physics, from Jean Pernet. He was reprimanded by the head of the school."

Who wrote that thick black 1, above, is a mystery; Gasser says it likely wasn't Pernet himself but someone in the registrar's office. But whoever marked the grade seems to have had strong feelings about it. "It does look like an angry 1," Gasser says. "It stands out. It's not something you find often in such files."

There's also a remark about Einstein's scholastic habits written in his student file that Gasser says is hard to translate, but it essentially accuses him of "laziness."

3. EINSTEIN GRADUATES … BUT ISN'T OFFERED A JOB.

ETH Zurich

In Einstein's department, there were five students (above). Of the four who passed the final exams, Einstein had the lowest mark and was the only one who wasn't offered a job as an assistant teacher at ETH Zurich. The fifth student, and only woman, was his girlfriend (later wife) Mileva Maric, who failed.

When it came to cramming for tests, the diffident student Einstein often leaned on the meticulous notes kept by his classmate and close friend Marcel Grossman, who got the second highest exam score. After graduation, as Einstein struggled to find teaching work, Grossman, with the help of his father, hooked him up with a job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1902. Grossman became a renowned mathematician. Einstein turned to his friend again when refining the math of one of his seminal works. "Grossman helped Einstein with some mathematical problems in the General Theory of Relativity," Gasser says.

Grossman died young, in 1936, after a slow and painful deterioration, likely from multiple sclerosis. "It was kind of a sad story," Gasser says. "Einstein kept in touch with some of his friends and former fellow students till the very end. He was a very loyal friend."

4. EINSTEIN PROPOSES "MODIFICATIONS" TO THE CURRENT THEORY OF SPACE-TIME … AND CALLS HIS FRIEND A "FROZEN WHALE."

ETH Zurich

"This is probably the most famous letter in all of ETH Zurich," Gasser says. It dates to May 15, 1905, when Einstein was employed at the Swiss patent office but in his spare time was plugging away at "very high-level work," including his doctoral thesis for the University of Zurich (which he dedicated to his pal Grossman). This letter is to mathematician Conrad Habicht, a close friend with whom he'd formed a small group called Akademie Olympia that discussed physics and philosophy over food and drink, usually in Einstein's Bern apartment. In the letter, Einstein is in high spirits, teasing Habicht about missing him on Easter, asking for Habicht's dissertation, and mentioning that he is working on four papers.

"Dear Habicht,

"Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us that I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege when I break it now with some inconsequential babble. But is this not always the fate of the exalted ones of the world? So what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul, or whatever else I would like to hurl at your head, filled as I am with 70% anger and 30% pity! You have only the latter 30% to thank for my not having sent you a can full of minced onions and garlic after you so cravenly did not show up at Easter.

"But why have you still not sent me your dissertation? Don’t you know that I am one of the 1.5 fellows who would read it with interest and pleasure, you wretched man? I promise you four papers in return. The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary, as you will see if you send me your work first. The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms …

"The third proves that bodies on the order of magnitude 1/1000 mm, suspended in liquids, must already perform an observable random motion that is produced by thermal motion. Such movement of suspended bodies has actually been observed by physiologists who call it Brownian molecular motion. The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is on the electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time."

What Einstein so casually refers to as a "rough draft" featuring a "modification" of the theory of space and time we know by a different name: the Theory of Special Relativity. He also got his Ph.D. in 1905, which would go down in history as Einstein's annus mirabilis, or miracle year.

5. EINSTEIN BECOMES A PROFESSOR … BUT HE'S NOT REALLY INTO TEACHING.

ETH Zurich

After 1905, Einstein became famous in his field virtually overnight, Gasser says. In 1909, the University of Zurich created a new professorship for theoretical physics, and Einstein was its inaugural professor. Other universities competed for him, including the German University of Prague.

Einstein was a good teacher. When his students at the University of Zurich learned that he was being lured away to Prague, they signed petitions to raise his salary, hoping to keep the rising star. "I think he had a good relationship with his students," Gasser says, but "he didn't want to invest much time in teaching."

After a couple years in Prague, he returned to Zurich in 1912 as a full professor at ETH. Above are some of the course offerings in the math and physics department for the winter term of 1912–1913. Einstein taught analytical mechanics, thermodynamics, and a seminar in physics. "It was seven hours per week," Gasser says. "That was a normal teaching load for the time."

But research remained his main interest. At the time he was working on the problem of gravitation; once again he collaborated with Grossman, now his fellow professor at ETH. This work would eventually play a role in his General Theory of Relativity.

When Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University offered him a professorship with no teaching obligations, Einstein couldn't resist, and in 1913 he left Zurich for Germany.

6. EINSTEIN WORKS OUT SOME EQUATIONS … AND MAKES SOME MISTAKES.

ETH Zurich

In 1915, Einstein published The Formal Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity. One of its earliest and most enthusiastic proponents was a geometry professor and former colleague of Einstein's at ETH Zurich named Hermann Weyl, who sought to express the theory using mathematical formulas different from Einstein's. The letter above, dating to November 23, 1916, is Einstein's take on a lecture Weyl gave in which he proposed these other formulas. Einstein says his ideas are interesting and plays around with the equations. "He’s working out the math as he’s writing," Gasser says. "It’s very technical."

For us non-geniuses, one appeal of this letter lies not in its far-reaching intellect but in its scribbles and crossouts. It's consoling, somehow, to know that even Einstein made mistakes.

That notion wouldn't be lost on him, Gasser says: "He doesn’t describe himself as a solitary genius. He really believed in cooperation and was actively seeking help at some stages. He relied on excellent mathematicians, and this letter really illustrates this."

Two years later, in 1918, Weyl published his seminal work Raum, Zeit, Materie (Space, Time, Matter), which explained general relativity in more elegant mathematical terms than Einstein himself ever had. Einstein was greatly impressed. 

8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

World Market/Amazon
World Market/Amazon

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to some, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. So, if you have co-workers and friends who are living the WFH lifestyle, here are some products that will make their life away from their cubicle a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so they can slip it into their backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever they need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $179

Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. They can even operate it without heat if they just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. World Explorer Coffee Sampler; $32

UncommonGoods

Making sure they've got enough coffee to match their workload is a must, and if they're willing to experiment with their java a bit, the World Explorer’s Coffee Sampler allows them to make up to 32 cups using beans from all over the world. Inside the box are four bags with four different flavor profiles, like balanced, a light-medium roast with fruity notes; bold, a medium-dark roast with notes of cocoa; classic, which has notes of nuts; and fruity, coming in with notes of floral.

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Lavender and Lemon Beeswax Candle; $20

Amazon

People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS / Amazon

If they're carting their laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, the gadgets are going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

World Market

Sometimes they don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for a computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that they would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $17

Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However they organize their lives, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (They can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $39

Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.