International Year of Physics – Einstein and Patents

July 2005

Einstein at the Swiss Federal Patent Office (Photo Lucien Chavan)
Einstein at the Swiss Federal Patent Office (Photo Lucien Chavan)

2005, the International Year of Physics, marks the centenary of Albert Einstein’s “Miracle Year” and the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

It was in 1905 that Einstein published four articles in the German monthly Annalen der Physik, which not only revolutionized physics and our understanding of the universe, but also changed our world. On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light postulated the hypothesis of light quanta. On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid According to the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Induction explained Brownian motion. On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies is regarded as the seminal text of the theory of relativity. Does the Inertia of the Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content? looked at the consequences of the theory of relativity and introduced the most celebrated equation in physics: E = mc2. In April of the same year Albert Einstein finished writing his thesis A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions and defended it successfully in July.

The Miracle Year came in the middle of the period – from 1902 to 1909 – in which Einstein, possessing an undistinguished educational record and unable to obtain a teaching job in a university, was working as a technical assistant at the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern. Examining patent applications clearly did not absorb all Einstein’s energies, as in the course of those seven years Einstein had some two dozen articles on theoretical physics published in the Annalen. Some commentators have even suggested a connection between his work on relativity and the problem of synchronizing clocks, a thorny one at the time, which accounted for a large number of Swiss patent applications. Later, Einstein was to write: “A profession with practical purposes is a delight for a man such as I; an academic career requires young researchers to produce science, and it takes a strong character to resist the temptation of superficial research.”

Einstein the Inventor

Einstein’s outstanding contribution to science needs no further words from WIPO Magazine. Less well known is that Einstein was himself an inventor with many patents to his name. Among other inventions, he and his pupil, Leó Szilárd, motivated by the death of a family from toxic fumes from their gas refrigerator, patented new types of refrigerators.

The patent rights sold to companies such as Electrolux in Sweden provided Einstein and Szilárd with a livelihood for a few years. Einstein’s refrigerator was never commercialized, however, largely because of the Depression and the invention of chlorofluorocarbons. But recently there has been renewed interest in the system, as certain features could potentially suit it to use in remote locations or developing countries: it cannot wear out as it has no compressor nor moving parts; it can operate without electricity, requiring only a source of heat; and the cost of manufacture would be relatively low. 

Time will tell whether Einstein’s and Szilárd’s invention ever sees commercial exploitation. It stands today as an intriguing example of a little gem preserved by the patent information system, providing an insight into the practical side of one of the greatest minds of the modern age.


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