The Unlikely Watch Collector: Albert Einstein
Unlikely Watch Collector

The Unlikely Watch Collector: Albert Einstein

The work and theories of Albert Einstein turned the world of physics upside down and led to him becoming the most influential physicist of the 20th century. Watchonista takes a look at the fascinating life of this legendary physicist and discovers three of the timekeepers that accompanied him in his research.

By Sophie Furley

It is difficult to imagine someone who has not heard of Albert Einstein. His celebrity status is even more astounding when you consider that he became famous via the field of theoretical physics. His Special and General Theories of Relativity and his 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics led him to become not only a legend in the science community but also a household name. Even his equation E=mc2 holds celebrity status, despite the fact that most of us don’t remember exactly what it means or why it’s important!

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was born in Ulm, Germany, to Jewish parents, and was an interesting character. He had an aversion to authority and hated elegant clothing, much preferring to wear loose pants, baggy pullovers, and no socks. He kept his hair long and would purposely backcomb it before interviews to look disheveled and rakish.

He was fascinated by math and physics from a very young age, and his curiosity and pursuit of understanding were insatiable. He dates the genesis of his interest in science to the age of five when he received a compass from his father; he was mystified by the invisible forces that could move the needle. At the age of 12, he discovered a book on geometry, and it only served to further fuel his love for mathematics and science.

Academic Life

Academic life was not always easy for the young Einstein. As previously mentioned, he didn’t respond well to authority. This was exacerbated by the failure of his father’s Munich business in 1894 and the family’s subsequent move to Italy. Only 15 at the time, Einstein stayed in Munich to finish his studies, but, separated from his family, he quickly became lonely and became particularly anxious about his looming military service. So he quit school to join his parents in Italy.

However, lest you think he was acting the impulsive teenager, Einstein did have a plan for his future: to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, where he didn’t need a high-school diploma to enter, only an entrance exam. At the age of 16, his results showed that he excelled in mathematics and physics, but failed at French, chemistry, and biology.

Still, the polytechnic was extremely impressed by his math score and reserved a place for him on the condition that he finish his formal schooling. So, he enrolled at the cantonal school of Aarau, which was a non-denominational, reform school, whose teaching style suited Einstein far better. He liked Switzerland so much that he decided to renounce his German nationality and apply to become a Swiss citizen.

His First Job

One year later, as planned, Einstein entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich and graduated in 1900. He intended to find a teaching position after his degree but couldn’t find a single position. Einstein found out later that his aversion to authority had led his professors to take rather a dislike to him, resulting in unfavorable references. So, he spent the next two years working as a temporary teacher and private tutor.

Luckily, his good friend Marcel Grossmann managed to help him secure a post as a technical expert at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Einstein loved the job and was quick and efficient at his work, which left him ample time to work on theoretical physics. It was during this time that Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work.

Einstein’s Swiss Silver Open-Face Pocket Watch

There are three timepieces known to have been owned by Einstein. The first is a Swiss, silver, open-face pocket watch, circa 1900. The same year that the 21-year old Einstein graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute, 1900 was also the year Einstein published his first paper. It was on the subject of intermolecular forces, though he later deemed it “worthless.” Nonetheless, Einstein was known to carry this timepiece with him as he carried out his work at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.

The 49mm pocket watch is unsigned but has German hallmarks. It features a gilt dial with Arabic numerals, a small seconds at 6 o’clock, a rose-colored gilt bezel, and a nickel-finished keyless 15-jewel lever movement with bi-metallic compensated balance.

The pocket watch came up for auction at Christie’s in 2016 and was sold for more than 13 times its original estimate, starting at £20,000 and selling for £266,500. Einstein didn’t place much importance on material possessions and owned very few items of value except for his watches, making these rare objects highly sought after at auction.

The Four Annus Mirabilis Papers

Einstein changed the way the Universe was perceived. His contribution to physics was perhaps one of the greatest provided by any one man. His four Annus Mirabilis papers laid the foundation of modern physics and changed the world’s views on space, time, mass, and energy.

In 1921, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, but he is perhaps most famous for his Special and General Theories of Relativity, his principle of mass-energy equivalence (from which the formula E=mc2 arose), his quantum description of light, and his approach to statistical mechanics.

Einstein Becomes An Icon

In 1919, the British physicist Arthur Eddington set out to test Einstein’s theory that gravity was able to bend light. This theory, known as the general theory of relativity, was a major refinement to Sir Isaac Newton's laws of universal gravitation, and thus, considered radical. To test this, Eddington’s team set out to a small African island to observe a total eclipse of the Sun. The results were conclusive. Einstein was right and he was catapulted into the limelight.

Unfortunately, at the time of his growing fame and success, Einstein was working out of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, Germany, meaning his sudden "World Famous" status coincided with the rise of the Nazi movement. So after different trips to the United States, Einstein decided to leave Germany and settle in the U.S. permanently.

Albert Einstein’s Longines Gold Wristwatch

It was during this time that a second timepiece makes an appearance. An elegant gold Longines wristwatch, it was made in 1930 and is engraved with the inscription: “Prof. Albert Einstein, Los Angeles, Feb. 16, 1931.” This 14-karat yellow gold, tonneau-shaped timepiece was presented to Einstein by Rabbi Edgar Magnin at a luncheon in Los Angeles on February 16th, 1931. A local Los Angeles newspaper article described the presentation as follows: "Einstein as a man and a Jew was the twin theme of an offering of tribute and praise which was tendered to Prof. Albert Einstein and Mrs. Einstein by the Jewish community of Los Angeles at a banquet in their honor."

The watch was auctioned by Antiquorum on August 16th, 2008, and fetched a staggering USD 596,000, becoming the highest value ever reached for a Longines timepiece at auction.

The Atomic Bomb

During the late 1930s, physicists began to consider whether Einstein’s E=mc2 formula was the key to creating an atomic bomb possible. Einstein had initially dismissed the possibility but left the question open should a method be found to magnify the power of the atom. In 1938 and 1939, a group of physicists found that vast amounts of energy could be unleashed in the process of splitting a uranium atom.

Then in 1939, fellow physicist Leo Szilard convinced Einstein to send a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to develop an atomic bomb. It was a decision that he later regretted, saying, “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker!”

Longines Pocket Watch

The third timepiece known to have been owned by Einstein is a Longines pocket watch that is noted in the Swiss watch brand’s archives as having been finished on September 6th, 1943, at the Longines manufacture in Saint-Imier and invoiced to Stahel Jewelers in Zurich on January 29th, 1946.

Einstein bequeathed this watch to his elder son Hans Albert, whose widow, Elizabeth Einstein Roboz, then gave to the Swiss diplomat, Henry E. Bovay, as a token of her gratitude for his services to the memory of her late father-in-law. Bovay, in turn, donated the pocket watch to the Historisches Museum in Bern, where it has been on display ever since.

The Historisches Museum in Bern houses the Albert Einstein Museum, a fascinating place to discover the life and achievements of the world’s most famous genius, not to mention the chance to get a glimpse of the last watch Einstein possessed.

Even though Einstein was not a watch collector by today’s standards, his watches rank among some of the most collectible timepieces in existence today, bringing a new definition to our series The Unlikely Watch Collector!

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