Einstein at the Patent Office

The Bern town clock chimes: once, twice, three times. Yet another patent on clocks sits at the desk, this one claiming originality for sending time through telephone lines. It was the age when electromechanical devices were starting to be used to synchronise distant clocks. From the comfort of the patent office, a young Albert Einstein was again thinking through the subtleties of measuring time.

After finishing his studies in 1900, Einstein could not get accepted anywhere for a teaching post. Eventually he was offered a job by his friend’s father at a Swiss patent office in 1902, where Einstein’s task was to look through inventions, check their originality, and write clear patents to protect the inventors’ new ideas. His job lasted from 1902 to 1909, during which time Einstein published his four Annus Mirabilis (miracle year) 1905 papers. Einstein described the patent office as his ‘worldly cloister’, where he ‘hatched [his] most beautiful ideas’.

Many historians speculate that the numerous patents Einstein analysed, relating to the electro-mechanical synchronisation of time, triggered his famously powerful thought experiments in special relativity. The subject of one of the Annus Mirabilis papers, special relativity is based on the notion of time being relative to the motion of an observer, assuming constant speed of light. One particularly important thought experiment for this paper was about a moving magnet and a conductor. For this, it was vital to understand electromagnetic induction—a phenomenon that frequently appeared in his patents.

Armed with a detailed knowledge of the patent process (see figure), Einstein spent his fragments of spare time inventing, and filed over 50 patents during his life. Try a quick Internet search of Google Patents for ones by Albert Einstein. Several interesting titles and illustrations come up, from Light-intensity self-adjusting camera to Refrigeration. There is even a Design for a blouse, which has two methods of buttoning—who knew fashion and physics could intersect? Einstein believed that ‘the origin of all technical achievements is the divine curiosity and the play instinct of the working and thinking researcher, as well as the constructive fantasy of the technical inventor’. Yet as well as the joy of inventing, Einstein had some more practical motivations: by selling the rights for the patents to companies such as Electrolux, he made extra money to fund his research.

While Einstein’s patents did not become commercialised during his lifetime, his Refrigeation invention resurfaced in the 21st Century. This 1930 patent had its origins in tragedy, when a failed refrigerator seal led to a Berlin family being killed by toxic fumes. Einstein and fellow physicist Leo Szilard were then motivated to design a refrigerator without deadly gases or moving parts that could fail. The advent of more powerful commercial refrigerators with non-toxic gases meant this invention never gained popularity, but several aspects make it of interest to modern society.

Einstein’s refrigerator is powered only by a heat source, without electricity, whereas normal modern refrigerators use an electric pump (causing the audible “hum” from a kitchen fridge). Hence, it can be directly adapted to have renew‐able sources of energy such as solar power. Furthermore, in the words of Prof Malcolm McCulloch, an electrical engineer at Oxford, ‘No moving parts is a real benefit because it can carry on going without maintenance. This could have real applications in rural areas. In 2008,Prof McCulloch led a team that set out to build a more efficient version of Einstein and Szilard’s original design, using pressurised butane gas and solar energy.

The modern applications of ideas based on Einstein’s fridge have even led to prizes. In 2016, 22 -year-old designer Will Broadway won the James Dyson Award for his design of an absorption refrigerator. His aim was to keep vaccines cool in developing countries—but with a long-term ambition of providing a portable “back‐pack” for transporting blood and organs for transplants. Unlike Einstein, Broadway has stated explicitly, ‘I don’t think it should be patented to restrict use’, as ‘It should be a basic human right…to have a vaccination’. So, it seems Einstein’s fridge design may not quite make it back to another patent office.

Viewing Einstein’s work from the perspective of the patent office, his abstract theoretical breakthroughs become connected with the practical technological advances of his era. This shows an interdependence of technology and fundamental science to push each other forwards—Einstein’s physics influenced his patents, and patents influenced his physics. As I sit writing this article at my desk, digital patents filling my laptop tabs, I hear a town clock chime three times. I wonder what novel thought experiments Einstein might have performed in the same seat, over 100 years after his own patent office days, surrounded by the inspiring inventions of 2019.

This article was first published in our Michaelmus Term 2019 Issue: Perspective

Artwork by Danielle Edmunds