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
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
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
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
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]
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
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