ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955)
Autograph manuscript of his first scientific essay, 'Über die Untersuchung des Aetherzustandes im magnetischen Felde' ['On the investigation of the state of ether in a magnetic field'], in a neat sloping gothic script, three minor verbal emendations in a different hand (perhaps that of Caesar Koch), 6 pages, folio, on one leaf and a bifolium, on lined paper (some slight weaknesses at folds, skilfully repaired); together with a covering autograph letter signed ('Albert') to his uncle [Caesar Koch], n.p. [Pavia], n.d. [summer 1895], one page, folio, on lined paper, signed again in 1950 at the head by Einstein, '1894 or 95. A. Einstein (date recollected in 1950)', inscribed in pencil on verso 'Avenue des Arts 59' (some yellowing, some weaknesses at upper margin and centrefold, skilfully repaired). Provenance: By descent to Suzanne Koch (daughter of Caesar; sale, Christie's London, 24 June 1987, lot 170).
Einstein et la Belgique, Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1979
Nobel Voices, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. and Deutsches Museum, Bonn, March 2001 - March 2002
Einstein, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, 2002 - 2005
The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (1987- ), Vol. 1, pp. 5-10
THE 16-YEAR OLD EINSTEIN'S FIRST SCIENTIFIC PAPER, CONTAINING THE SEEDS OF THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY, WITH HIS EARLIEST SURVIVING LETTER
Einstein's first scientific paper pursues an enquiry relating to the ether, the elastic substance which, according to the science of the day, filled all of space: Einstein proposes a research programme into the influence of magnetic fields on the ether, specifically on the mechanical deformations of the ether provoked by such fields, which affect the velocity of propagation of the electro-magnetic waves within it.
'The following note is the first modest expression of a few simple thoughts on this difficult topic. It is with reluctance that I am compressing them into an essay that resembles more a programme than a treatise ...'
'At its inception, an electric current sets the surrounding ether into a kind of momentary motion, whose nature it has not yet been possible to determine with certainty. Despite the continuance of the cause of this motion, i.e. the electic current, the ether remains in a potential state and forms a magnetic field ...'
'Any elastic charge of the ether at any (free) point in some direction has to be ascertainable from the change undergone by the velocity of an ether wave at this point and in this direction. The wave velocity is proportional to the square root of the elastic forces serving the propagation and inversely proportional to the ether masses to be moved by these forces. Since the density changes produced by the elastic deformations are usually insignificant, they could probably be disregarded in this context. One might therefore state with a very good approximation that the square root of the ratio of the change in propagation velocity (wave length) is equal to the ratio of the change in the elastic force'.
Einstein goes on to propose investigations into changes in the wave length in the magnetic field, concluding that 'the most interesting, and also most subtle, case would be the direction of experimental investigation of the magnetic field formed around an electric current, because the exploration of the elastic state of the ether in this case would enable us to look into the enigmatic nature of electric current'.
It was Einstein's continued interest in questions on the boundary between mechanics and electro-magnetics which provided the departure point for his 1905 special theory of relativity, which was, incidentally, to cause the final abandonment of the ether concept.
Einstein's accompanying letter to his uncle is already, even in his mid-teens, phrased in his characteristic self-deprecatory, almost apologetic tone: 'I am very glad that you are still interested in my humble activities in spite of the fact that we have not been able to see each other for such a long time, and that I am such a terribly lazy letter-writer. Even so, I hesitated about sending you this composition. For it deals with a very specialised topic, and is besides, as you would expect from such a young chap as me, still rather naive and unfinished. I shall not take it amiss if you do not read the thing at all ...'. The letter concludes with reference to Einstein's attempts to enter the Polytechnikum in Zurich.
Einstein had been interested in electromagnetic phenomena from his earliest years: the family firm had been involved in electrotechnology since 1882, and one of Einstein's earliest memories was of his sense of wonder as a 4 or 5-year-old at the behaviour of a compass needle. He was evidently initially very proud of his paper: Ernesta Marangoni recalled that in 1896 Einstein gave her a copy in his mother's hand of a paper entitled 'Über Elektricität und elektronischen Strome', which may have been identical, and also that he asked his mother to take it back a year later 'because it was wrong'. According to the Collected Papers this letter and paper are the earliest surviving specimens of Einstein's handwriting (apart from two undated marginal annotations).
The essay was composed at an unsettled moment in the young Einstein's career. After initially remaining behind in Munich when his parents first moved to Milan in an attempt to revive the fortunes of their electro-chemical business, by the time of this letter he had moved to join them when they settled in Pavia. As his letter to his uncle indicates, he planned at this stage to enroll in the Polytechnikum in Zurich, although he was two years below the standard age: he eventually fulfilled this aim only after pursuing a further two years' study at the Gymnasium in Aarau. Einstein's maternal uncle, Caesar Koch, a grain merchant based in Stuttgart, is thought to have encouraged his nephew's early scientific inclinations, in particular by the unforgettable gift of a model steam engine when he was six. (2)