How Albert Einstein Killed Time At The Patent Office

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In June of 1902, Einstein received a letter offering him a job as a technical expert at the federal patent office in Bern. One month later, he was responsible for examining submitted inventions and deciding whether they were deserving of a patent protection, whether they infringed on existing patents, and whether or not the products actually worked. Though Einstein jokingly referred to this job as his “cobbler’s trade”—his employment turned out to be a stroke of good fortune. In fact, he attributes this role as “a worldly cloister where he hatched his most beautiful ideas.”

Einstein was modest and humorous and could complete his tasks so quickly and so well that he had ample spare time to pursue his own scientific work. He managed his time exactly: eight hours of work, eight hours of miscellaneous and scientific work, and eight hours of sleep. Given his productivity, it is no surprise that he was granted a raise shortly after being hired.

While living in Bern, Einstein met regularly with a group of friends who shared his passion for physics and philosophy. The men met late into the night to discuss their projects and referred to themselves as the “Olympia Academy.”

Einstein’s years working in the patent office were arguably the most successful years of his entire career. In 1905, he published three papers that would change the course of science for generations to come: one on Brownian motion, one on quantum theory, and one on special relativity. Each of these papers presented remarkable and groundbreaking solutions to the problems facing physicists at the time.

In a series of subsequent papers, Einstein used his statistical mechanics to propose the existence of light quanta and for the rest of his scientific career, he explored the significance of wave-particle duality in terms of his search for fusion. The patent office was understandably disappointed when Einstein left in the fall of 1909 to accept the position of Professor Extraordinary in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich.

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