Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 524:
EINSTEIN: INVENTOR

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 524.

Today, we meet an inventor -- named Albert Einstein. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Einstein looms so large in our mythology. What was he: a scientist (mad or sober), pure empyrean mind, or something else? Einstein fed his own myths. He used them as a shield against a public that was ready to consume him.

But consider the world that gave us Einstein. His family ran an electric-machinery factory in Munich. Machinery and invention were central in their lives. Einstein studied applied physics in Switzerland. Then he became a Swiss patent examiner. He plied that trade 'til he was 30. He was good at it.

Physicists have brushed off that experience. Yet Einstein never lost interest in machinery and invention. He was an expert witness in patent suits through his 30s and 40s.

When he was 50, he and another famous physicist, Leo Szilard, developed a new refrigerator. Szilard was also grounded in engineering. Together, they held eight patents. The key to their system was the electromagnetic Einstein-Szilard pump. They finally sold the idea to Germany's General Electric Company.

Einstein also worked with gyrocompasses. For years, a Dutch firm paid him royalties on the compass he patented in 1926. In 1935 he invented a new airplane gyrocompass.

To understand Einstein -- to follow his clean radical thinking in so many areas -- we have to go back to that Swiss patent office. We have to remember his family's factory. Einstein knew what other physicists don't like to admit. It is that science is only great when it is invention.

Einstein once wrote about the philosopher Ernst Mach: "Mach's weakness [was that he thought] theories ... arise [from] discovery and not [from] invention."

So we go back to read Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity. It dances with references to the same electric machine elements he looked at so critically in his patent office. His mental armory was well stocked with engineering tools -- with spatial concepts and machine elements.

Einstein was born into the new industrial world of the late 19th century. It was a world shaped by a creative vision that was visual, machine-based, and inventive.

He invented a new physics that finally left that world behind. But Einstein himself never forgot his debt to that world or to that vision.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hughes, T.P., Einstein the Inventor. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 6, No. 3, Winter 1991, pp. 34-39.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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