'Regards to your old lady'

Mar 03, 2011
A previously unpublished postcard from Albert Einstein to his university friend Jakob Ehrat, December 1911. Credit: ETH-Bibliothek, Archives and Private Collections, Hs1509:4

The ETH-Bibliothek at ETH Zurich (Switzerland) is to post six new Einstein letters to his university friend Jakob Ehrat and the latter's mother Emma Ehrat-Uhlinger on the web. The ETH-Bibliothek currently holds over one hundred Einstein letters.

When he graduated in around 1900, was the only one of his classmates not to obtain an assistant position at the Federal Polytechnical School (now ETH Zurich). Following a brief stint in Schaffhausen, Einstein took a job at the Patent Office in Berne. The first of the six Einstein letters the ETH-Bibliothek inherited dates from this period of his life. The letter to Emma Ehrat-Ühlinger from 1903 reveals that she had been greatly vexed by Einstein’s phrase “regards to your old lady”. In it, he excuses his faux pas by explaining to her that the proper and official title for the mother of an academic is in fact “the man’s old lady”. Besides, he told her, he’d also used the same salutation in countless letters to his own mother. The contents of the other five letters to Jakob Ehrat are also of a personal nature and show that the friendship continued way beyond their time together at university.

Underestimated genius

Over one hundred letters and documents, sorted according to the biographical stages of Einstein’s life, are available in the ETH-Bibliothek’s online collection: The original letters, however, many of which were written in Sütterlin, are only brought out for promotional purposes nowadays. Many of the letters hail from private collections; others were purchased, including the correspondence between Albert Einstein and the mathematician Conrad Habicht. In one of the most profound letters in the collection dated 1905, Einstein already mentions four of his most notable research projects to Habicht. That same year, he completed a PhD at the University of Zurich and first came up with the idea for the “special theory of relativity”, two years later the “general theory of relativity”. ETH Zurich finally expressed an interest in its alumnus and Einstein was appointed a professor of theoretical physics in 1912. The Archives and Private Collections section at the ETH-Bibliothek contains course programmes from the time that list lectures given by Einstein, such as “Continuum Mechanics” or the “Molecular Theory of Heat”.

Survivor of Nazism and two wives

In the spring of 1914 Einstein moved to Berlin, where he perfected the “general theory of relativity” during his professorship at the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Numerous letters and postcards to the mathematicians Hermann Weyl and David Reichinstein from Einstein’s “Berlin years” (1914-1933) are available on the platform “Einstein Online”. When the Nazis came to power, Einstein emigrated to the United States and took up a position at Princeton University. In the 1950s, he corresponded fervently with his first biographer, Carl Seelig, who also bequeathed his collection of documents from and about Einstein to the ETH-Bibliothek after his death. It was also during this period that Einstein’s correspondence with his university friend Ehrat ended after a long hiatus. In his sixth and final in 1952, Einstein shows his wry sense of humour: “I’m doing just fine, considering that I have triumphantly survived Nazism and two wives”.

Explore further: Freedom and responsibility of science

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Einstein doctorate up for auction

Mar 06, 2009

The doctorate certificate that Albert Einstein obtained from the University of Zurich in 1906 will come up for auction in June, auctioneers Fischer Galerie said Friday.

The World Year of Physics: 2005

Jul 01, 2005

Exactly 100 years ago (on June 30, 1905), a 26-year-old patent clerk named Albert Einstein published an strange research paper about a principle he called relativity -- and gave us a whole new way to think ...

The Genesis of Relativity

Feb 22, 2007

New insights into the premises, assumptions and preconditions that underlie Einstein’s Relativity Theory, as well as the intellectual, and cultural contexts that shaped it, are the subject of a comprehensive study published ...

New light shed on old dispute between Einstein and Bohr

Jan 18, 2010

In classical physics there are no uncertainties - the properties of matter on an atomic level are deterministic, that is to say predetermined. The theories of quantum mechanics, however, only say something ...

Recommended for you

Freedom and responsibility of science

14 minutes ago

Yesterday, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences presented their recommendations for "The Freedom and Responsibility of Science" in Berlin. Both research organizations appeal ...

What I learned from debating science with trolls

Aug 20, 2014

I often like to discuss science online and I'm also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics and (perhaps surprisingly) the big bang. This inevitably ...

Activists urge EU to scrap science advisor job

Aug 19, 2014

Nine major charities urged the European Commission on Tuesday to scrap a science advisor position it says puts too much power over sensitive policy into the hands of one person.

More to a skilled ear in music

Aug 15, 2014

The first pilot study in Australia to give musicians the skills and training to critically assess music by what they hear rather than what they see begins this month at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.The study aims to ...

User comments : 0