A look at the teaching career of Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is probably best known for his theory of relativity, but he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for something entirely different – his explanation of the photoelectric effect. At that time, he had been a traveling lecturer for many years. Many picture Einstein as a recluse with crazy hair writing formulas on a chalkboard, but in the early to mid 20th century he shared his brilliance as a professor in several countries and among colleagues like Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie.

The almost teacher

Einstein had a difficult time getting into academics. According to the Biography channel, Einstein had personality conflicts with his university professors, leading to an inability to obtain an academic position after graduation. His first year after graduating from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich was spent tutoring students – and he was notably fired from these less than ideal positions. He spent the following several years working in the Swiss patent office. The years from 1901 to 1905 weren’t wasted though; Einstein published four academic papers in 1905 and earned his doctorate, all from daydreaming about light beams while working at the patent office. However, it still took three years for the scientific community to fully embrace him, which happened as he lectured at international meetings.

Teacher in Switzerland and Prague (1908-1914)

As outlined in his biography by the Nobel committee, Einstein was appointed Privatdozent (Private Lecturer) in Bern, Switzerland, in 1908. In the following years he was offered and accepted more prestigious positions: Professor Extraordinary (equivalent to Associate Professor according to the Center for History of Physics) at the University of Zurich in 1909, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Prague in the Czech Republic in 1911 and finally Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1912. In 1914, he left Switzerland behind for his German roots.

Teacher from Germany (1914-1933)

In 1914, Einstein became the Director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and Professor at the University of Berlin. He had no teaching duties, which some think was an attractive part of the job – he was free to work on his theories and among his colleagues with no classes to interrupt him. However, he did lecture on his theories at various meetings and institutions. In 1915, he lectured at the University of Gottingen on his general theory of relativity, which was completed later that year. In 1919, astronomical observations made him famous and led newspapers to declare him the successor to Isaac Newton.

In 1921, when he won the Nobel Prize, he held a world tour to share his theories and observations with students and colleagues across the globe. However, he held his positions in Berlin until 1933, when he renounced his German citizenship and immigrated to America due to political issues (Einstein was Jewish and a target of the Nazi party).

American academic

In 1933, Einstein accepted a position as Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ. Einstein wasn’t new to America, as he had lectured there in 1921. He retired from the Princeton position in 1945. Einstein continued his work into retirement though. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he wrote in Scientific American in 1950 about his unfinished unified theory, but died with it still incomplete in 1955.

Teacher of society

During World War I, Einstein was one of four notable academic figures to publicly stand against Germany’s role in the war. He is also noted as being one of the figures responsible for brokering a compromise between students who took professors hostage at the University of Berlin in 1918. In the 1930s, he notably discussed the creation of the atomic bomb using his theories in letters to President Franklin Roosevelt. As a lifelong pacifist, the actual use of the bomb bothered Einstein and he formed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists after World War II to work on controlling the use of the new device, and he argued against development of a hydrogen bomb and worked towards nuclear disarmament.

Einstein’s theories and predictions are still making waves in physics and astronomic theory today. Nobel prizes have been awarded to scientists who built on or proved his theories, such as that for the discovery of tau leptinos and the detection of neutrinos in 1995. Einstein has been a teacher to a century of students and scholars. And, like Newton, will likely be looked up to for another century.