Finding Einstein in Switzerland

The city of Bern, where Albert Einstein spent his happiest and most productive years, is filled with tributes to the famous physicist — some more relevant than others.

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Happy birthday to Albert Einstein. The great physicist was born 135 years ago, on March 14, in Ulm, Germany. A small metal plaque on the wall of a building in central Bern, Switzerland, reads “While he reviewed patent requests here, a thought crossed Albert Einstein’s mind: ‘A man will not feel his body weight during free fall,’ a basic idea behind the theory of relativity.

I look around suspiciously. What brings a man to think such a lofty thought here, of all places, at the entrance to a gruff-looking office building, currently inhabited by a Swiss telephone company? A hundred years ago, this is where the patent office was. Einstein worked there for five years between 1902 and 1907. The greatest genius of the 20th century worked mostly as a clerk. His job title was assistant examiner. His lofty thoughts, however, are what give the old white building its current glow. I try hard to think of something important or meaningful but give up and go for a cup of coffee across the street.

Einstein lived in Bern for seven years between 1902 and 1909, from the ages of 23 to 30 — a time he later described as the happiest and most fruitful of his life. He published 32 articles during his time in Bern, six of which are still considered part of the canon of modern physics.

Einstein has been warmly adopted by Bern over the past decade. The city began to recognize his value as a tourist attraction in 2005, when it marked 100 years since Einstein’s “Year of Wonders,” the year during which he published a series of revolutionary articles. The city held exhibitions and conferences that turned out to be quite popular. Since then, Bern has continued to develop its Einstein tourism industry.

Einstein’s house

The small Einstein map distributed by the local tourism office shows that the man never stopped moving. During the seven years he lived in Bern, he moved apartments once a year, on average. Einstein came to Bern as a young, single man, having received Swiss citizenship a year earlier, after finishing his studies in Zurich. In January 1903, he married Mileva Maric, a young Serbian woman, who taught him physics. Maric was one of the first women to earn a physics degree in Switzerland. The couple, who married without their parents’ blessing, moved to the apartment at 49 Kramgasse street during the fall of 1903 and lived there for two years. Their first child, Lieserl, was born a year before they married, in 1902. Their son, Hans Albert, was born in 1904.

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The Old City of Bern from above.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The clock tower.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The Einstein Museum.Credit: Moshe Gilad

The apartment now serves as the starting point for the city Einstein tour, run by the Einstein House. The most surprising thing about the apartment is its size. The family of four lived in a cramped, two-room space; the kitchen and bathroom were shared with the neighboring apartment. That apartment now houses a high-end fashion sewing workshop. The tour guide from the Einstein House explains that we have to be very quiet during the explanatory video, which is played at very low volume, as neighbors have complained that they’ve been driven crazy from hearing the video through the thin apartment walls about twenty times a day.

The furniture in the Einstein House was accumulated over a few years. The couch in the living room belonged to Einstein when he lived in Zurich. Einstein and Maric purchased the chairs in Bern. The floor and wallpaper are replicas, meant to resemble the originals. There is a wooden cradle and a large desk in the corner, the same desk Einstein used at the patent office. A friend of Einstein once said that during a visit with the young patent clerk, he asked him where he developed his theories. Einstein smiled, opened one of the drawers in his big desk and answered, “Here, in this drawer.”

Back then, though, there was no room in the apartment for such a large desk, and Einstein would scribble theories on the round dining room table. It was on this table that he wrote his theory on the photoelectric effect, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. It was also on this table that Einstein jotted down the principles of his theory of relativity. To demonstrate the theory of relativity to the group, the Einstein House tour guide says, “One strand of hair falling off someone’s head is very little, relatively. One strand of hair in a bowl of soup is huge amount.” It’s unclear if Einstein would endorse such an explanation, but everyone laughed.

More traditional explanations of Einstein’s theories and his legacy can be found on the floor above the apartment. Although a different family lived there during the early part of the twentieth century, the museum converted the apartment into a space for screening films. The films tell of the physicist's life after he left the Swiss capital for Zurich and then Prague. Einstein divorced Maric in 1919 and immediately married his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal. He never again enjoyed the same level of creativity and productivity that characterized his years in Bern.

On ground floor of the Einstein House, just beneath the museum, is a very popular bar and restaurant. Many young people, around the same age as Einstein was when he lived there, can be seen at the tables. They drink the local beer, named for the great physicist. Printed on the napkins, in large letters, is the phrase “Einstein Beer — the best there is, relatively.”

The clock tower

There is no real connection, but apparently it was impossible to resist the temptation to tie Bern’s clock tower in to the Einstein tour. In use since the thirteenth century, the tower stands at the beginning of the street where the Einstein House stands, just 300 meters away.

The same clock has been in the tower since 1527. It has been maintained in excellent condition and remains extremely precise, in Swiss fashion. At four minutes to the hour, small doors open to reveal little figures doing a mechanical dance. The hands of the clock are adorned with suns, moons and stars. “Einstein after all was the one who told us that all is governed by the sun, moon and stars,” says the tour guide. “He is the one who added time as a dimension in modern physics,” she says before launching into a complex, unclear explanation of black holes.

The patent office

The Einstein tour of Bern gives exploring the Old City a sense of purpose and mission. Signs marking the various stops along the tour can be found at the entrances to buildings. Sometimes the connection to Einstein is a bit of a stretch, and the wording of the signs is a bit odd. One sign adorning a building that used to be a synagogue, reads “Like Spinoza, Einstein believed in the ‘celestial harmony of existence.’” As far as I know, there is no record of Einstein ever visiting the synagogue.

Café Bollwerk, a favorite of Einstein, where he would meet friends, no longer exists. An Italian restaurant called L’Aragosta stands in its place. On the corner, there is a picture of the famous guest and an inscription attesting to the fact that he indeed liked the old café.

The building that housed the patent office is just around the corner. Even though many guidebooks claim that the building is open to the public and that tourists are allowed to enter and see the room where Einstein worked, the guard at the front door displayed rather narrow knowledge of history and claimed entry was permitted only for Swisscom employees. I tried to ask him about the view from Einstein’s room, but he answered by quoting the famous physicist, “I am only passionately curious.”

The Einstein Museum

In 2005, the Historical Museum of Bern held a large exhibition on Einstein’s life. The exhibition’s success led to a new, permanent wing of the museum dedicated to Einstein. It’s a large exhibit, over 1,000 square meters, which displays 550 items used by Einstein during his life, including books and furniture he once owned. Seven short films and presentations are spread throughout the exhibit, retelling different parts of his biography.

Attempts to explain to the significance of Einstein's scientific achievements are rather limited. His personal life is given most of the attention. Topics include Judaism, persecution by the Nazis and the Holocaust, which caused Einstein to flee to the United States. Another part of the exhibit deals with the development of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Einstein's role in it.

A sign for the Einstein Museum.Credit: Moshe Gilad