Albert Einstein: An Introduction. In the history of science, few men–perhaps only Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton, and Bill Nye — have so fundamentally changed the way in which we see our physical world. Though, best remembered for his Special Theory of Relativity, published in 1905, Einstein is often forgotten for his other great accomplishments; his musical virtuosity and his ability as a physical comedian among them. Nor do most people remember –or perhaps they choose not to recall–the more troubling aspects of Albert Einstein’s personality. His compulsive stealing, for example, or the sadistic way in which he taunted and tormented his teachers and, later, his fellow scientists; these are elements of Einstein’s life that are usually overlooked.
Humble Beginnings. Born on March 26, 1876 in Ugh, Germany, Einstein grew up and was educated in nearby Rotterdam. He was not, as many might expect, a “Teacher’s Pet.” Far from being an obvious genius, young Albert was actually unable to speak fluently until he was nearly 12 years old.
If he stood out in class at all it was because he was known for eating large amounts of paste and was said to have smelled of “dill pickles and peanut butter.’ His hair was unruly, as were his rumpled clothes, and he would sometimes act out in class by barking or snorting loudly. Because of these disturbing behaviors, classmates sometimes referred to him as Schweinhund, meaning “pig-dog.” He was so troublesome in his classes, in fact, that, by age 10, he had become notorious both in and out of school as “the Rotterdam Rotter.”
One of the many antics that earned him this title was remembered by his mathematics teacher, Gunter Ghartrich. “Albert suddenly released two bats he had captured the previous night in his attic. He did it during a lesson on quadratic equations,” his teacher recalled. “Soon, the entire classroom had cleared out as the two swooping ‘flying mice’ buzzed and shrieked above our heads. Seven students were injured in their panic, an expensive tennis racket had to be mended, and a large fire extinguisher was left in need of a recharge.”
The daily classroom mischief that young Albert Einstein was known for may have paid off for him, though. It was when throwing a spitball at the back of a classmate’s head in 1886 that Einstein first became interested in physics. Before the wad of wet paper struck the victim’s skull, young Albert couldn’t help but notice how the path of the slimy missile was altered by the immutable force of gravity. Or was it truly immutable? Albert wondered about this and other so-called “laws” of physics. Were the rules of physics really etched in stone, or might it all be relative? Einstein suddenly felt he had to know for sure and, by age 16, he had mastered the both differential and integral calculus in an effort to understand the true dynamics of the spit-wad.
Kicked Out! Just as Albert had begun to show explosive academic progress, Einstein’s teachers finally lost patience with his endless shenanigans. His timing of a second animal-release “prank” was most unfortunate. When Albert suddenly let a rabid skunk loose from his lunchbox and then began to dance an improvised Irish jig in order to induce the animal to hiss and spray, he was summarily expelled from The Rotterdam Academy. Sixty three years later, the school’s Headmaster, Florien Unterberg, who never forgot the incident, recalled it in heavily accented English: “I had seen schtudents do some serious schtuff in my time, but never had I vitnessed von pull a schtinky schtunt like dat. I vas forced to tell the boy to pack his zootcaze.”
Though Einstein’s sprawling genius had just begun to reveal itself, it seemed as if his academic career had met an early end.
The ‘Show Biz’ Years. Einstein, too embarrassed to admit to his parents, Johannes and Anna, that he had been expelled, spent the years between 1888 and 1895 on the road pursuing careers in the performing arts. His wide-ranging genius was dazzlingly evident when he appeared, as a total unknown, at an audition for a violinist spot with the London Symphony Orchestra. Not only did the young stranger earn the available position in the orchestra, he soon held the coveted “first chair.”
In his two years with the symphony, Einstein proved himself to be a brilliant violin soloist–perhaps the best the world has ever heard– but he disliked conformity and grew bored simply following the scores of other musicians. Soon Einstein’s rebellious sense of humor became a problem once again. During passages wherein the violin section was merely providing background accompaniment, Einstein began inserting his own improvised musical flourishes.
These melodic snippets were usually little musical clichés or jokes; in the midst of playing a piece by Bizet, he might suddenly, for example, wedge in a well-known musical phrase from the Austrian national anthem or a measure from “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” played backwards. Though some audience members were said to have loved his antics, the Maestro, Sir Neville Mariner, was not amused. Soon, Albert Einstein was packing his suitcase once again, leaving London for Liverpool to head out on a steamer bound for New York City.
Vaudeville. In New York City in the early 1890’s, “Vaudeville” was the hottest and most profitable form of novel entertainment, and Einstein was eager to try out his hand on stage. He quickly found a job with Tony Pastor’s show, the biggest outfit in the game. Naturally witty and outrageous, Albert Einstein was an instant success as he added his quirky comic talents to the spicy mixture of music and mirth that Vaudeville offered New York audiences. Because of his unruly mass of frizzy hair, he was often billed as “Fuzz-Ball,” and was known for his intentionally bad jokes, his tuxedo complete with a pair of overly-lengthy tails that dragged on the floor behind him, and his daring, sometimes dangerous, physical comedy.
During a typical evening’s performance, Einstein might come sliding in from the stage wing on his bottom, rise to his feet, and favor the audience with a very bad joke. When the audience naturally disapproved, Einstein would stick out his tongue (this became his trademark) and seem to prepare to storm offstage indignantly. Instead of this, he’d feign a misstep, tumble head-first into the orchestra pit 15 feet below, and wind up with his feet sticking out of a percussionist’s tympani. Audiences roared. In his brief Vaudeville career, Albert “Fuzz-Ball” Einstein was able to perform alongside legends like W.C. Fields, Harry Houdini, Eva Tanguay, and the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
It was while he was appearing with Bergen that Einstein’s Vaudeville career came to an abrupt end. Bergen was famous for appearing with his side-kick, the dummy “Charlie McCarthy.” One evening when he retired to his dressing room following a brief stint onstage with Einstein, Bergen discovered that his precious dummy was missing from its case. Law enforcement was called in and their search eventually led them to Einstein’s hotel room where the officers discovered not only the missing Charlie McCarthy dummy, but over 200 stolen “souvenirs” taken from the many celebrities with whom Einstein had been performing. Einstein, it was discovered, suffered from Kleptomania, a disorder in which sufferers have an irresistible compulsion to steal.
Though famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud offered to treat Einstein for his problem, the public was not as sympathetic to the man they suddenly viewed as a common thief. Vaudeville fans shunned Einstein’s shows and Pastor soon had to fire the “Comic Kleptomaniac,” as the New York Post called him.
Back to the Drawing Board. With his career as a performer ruined, Einstein reluctantly realized that his best remaining hope was to try to return to academic life. In 1896, after several attempts, Einstein finally passed the rigorous entrance exam and began attending FIT, New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. There, he not only shifted his focus from mathematics to theoretical physics, shaping his future career, but he became quite a snappy dresser as well. Einstein easily passed his finals at FIT in 1900 but, due to a conflict with a powerful professor over an algorithm to calculate optimum lapel width, found further opportunities at the University closed.
Labor, Marriage, and more Labor. Dejected, Einstein returned to Europe where, in 1902, he found a job with the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. There, he specialized in examining claims regarding innovations in technologies related to the production of time-pieces, multi-purpose knives and alpine ski equipment as well as various chocolaty applications and improvements. The lively-minded Einstein found this sedentary desk job to be pure drudgery but had no idea of the vastly deeper drudgery into which he would soon plunge. In the spring of ’02, he married Berta Marsic, a classmate he had “known” back in Rotterdam.
The couple soon had two daughters but the marriage was an unhappy one. Einstein dreamt of someday becoming a brilliant physicist; one capable of engineering the means for time-travel and massive explosions–cool stuff like that. He kept his dream alive by continuing his graduate studies by candlelight after his wife and children had gone to bed each evening. Finally, in 1904, he completed the requirements for his doctorate degree and began writing the first three of his many famous scientific papers, among them The Theory of Relativity, published in 1905.