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#1
Old 03-18-2005, 06:29 PM
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What exactly was Einsteins job in the Swiss Patent Office?

We always hear the old story, one that I think must approach the level of urban legend, that Einstein was a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office when he published his 1905 paper on the nature of light. I've also heard that is job was "patent examiner". Regardless, the telling of this story usually seems to arise out of a desire to show that great things can be achieved by those in even the most mundane or humble jobs.

But should we understand Einstein's job to have really been that of a clerk? Wouldn't his work as a Patent Examiner been on a higher level than, say, getting the Gritzmacher shipment out by 5PM? Did the other Patent Examiners have roughly equivalent backgrounds in math and or science? It seems like that would have been useful for anyone in that job. And how much money did they earn?
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Old 03-18-2005, 06:56 PM
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He was the head of the 1920's Style Death Ray Department.
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#3
Old 03-18-2005, 06:58 PM
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A patent examiner is a pretty straightforward job title. Someone submits a patent application to a patent office. The case gets assigned to an examiner who looks through the application to make sure that it does what it purports to do and is not a copy of an existent patent or somehow not worthy of patent protection.

It's not exactly a prestigious or well-paying job even today. If you saw the office of a USPTO examiner you would wonder how anything got approved. It's not exactly a paperless process.
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Old 03-18-2005, 07:44 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by BobT
If you saw the office of a USPTO examiner you would wonder how anything got approved.
Or, more to the point, how anything got rejected.

Especially software.

My rants aside, how did he get that job? And how absentminded could he have been if he kept it?
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Old 03-18-2005, 09:32 PM
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Sources say he got the job the way many of us get jobs, i.e., he knew a guy.
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Old 03-18-2005, 09:37 PM
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I read a biography many years ago. I recall that Einstein got the job through the father of a school friend. He wasn't really a clerk I think his position was called technical expert grade 3 (later 2). All I recall is that he checked designs. But he kept working there for a few years after he came to prominence so it must have been OK. This site says:

Rejected by academia, Einstein went his own way and took a job at the Swiss Patent Office as a technical expert, evaluating the plans of would-be inventors, correcting errors of design, and deciding (he could do this almost instantaneously) whether an idea would actually work. In his youth, Einstein had greatly enjoyed building models and playing with mechanical devices, and so his work at the Patent Office taxed him very little, and left him free in his spare time, and on his own, to do the theoretical work that would change the face of physics for the rest of the century.
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Old 03-19-2005, 01:39 AM
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It's my impression that the job title of "clerk" had a more general application back then than it does today. Up until the early twentieth century, a clerk could be any of a number of office jobs, many of which paid reasonably well, required a fair amount of education and intelligence, and often went to men who knew somebody important who got them the job. The same is true of the job title "secretary," which formerly meant a reasonably well paid job working as the principal assistant to a famous person and also often went to men who knew somebody important. (And these jobs were nearly always for men and not women, incidentally.)

The whole notion that Einstein was treated badly by the academic world is wrong. Einstein was always recognized as being very smart by his teachers, although many of them also thought he was a loose cannon and a bit obnoxious. Einstein graduated from college at 21, had a Ph.D. by 26, and was a professor at the top university in the German-speaking world by the time he was 35. He was a patent examiner (i.e., a "clerk") for a few years because he couldn't get a teaching or a research assistantship or a post-doc (to translate things into modern American terms) while he was in grad school and while just out of grad school. Still, it only took a couple of years as the physicists of the world realized how important his three major papers of 1905 were till he began moving through a series of increasingly prestigious physics teaching positions.
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Old 03-19-2005, 02:58 AM
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WW: The same is true of the job title "secretary," which formerly meant a reasonably well paid job working as the principal assistant to a famous person and also often went to men who knew somebody important.

A usage (and a hiring pattern) preserved in the modern use of "secretary" to designate prestigious US Cabinet posts: "Secretary of Defense", "Secretary of the Treasury", etc.

I would love to know what a few of the patent applications were that Einstein rejected. I would especially love to know if he ever rejected a design that subsequently turned out to be effective and patentable. There's bragging rights for you: "Albert Einstein didn't think my invention would work, but I was right and Einstein was wrong!"
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Old 03-21-2005, 10:30 AM
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To add to the sensible comments already made ...


Quote:
Originally Posted by don't ask
I read a biography many years ago. I recall that Einstein got the job through the father of a school friend.
It was Marcel Grossmann's father who knew Friedrich Haller, the director of the Federal Office of Intellectual Property, and who suggested Einstein to him in April 1901.
There's actually a reasonably significant period - April 1901 to June 1902 - between Grossmann telling Einstein about the possibility and him actually getting the job. While he continued to - unsuccessfully - apply for academic assistantships during this time and that was always his preferred employment, his immediate response to Grossmann was along the lines of that it sounds like a wonderful opportunity. The patent office then remains his consistent secondbest hope until he gets in, with the various schoolteaching and tutoring jobs he takes on in the interim only temporary stopgaps.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Spectre of Pithecanthropus
Did the other Patent Examiners have roughly equivalent backgrounds in math and or science?
There were about another dozen Technical Experts in the Bern office at the time he joined. While I don't know of any detailed investigation of their typical background, it's clear that the norm was to have a background in engineering. I'd expect that most of them would have had a degree in the subject. Haller fairly blatently biased the job requirements of the particular position Einstein applied for towards him; employing someone whose only qualification was a degree in physics was unusual, but could be justified. There was also an expectation that he'd have to bring his knowledge of mechanical engineering up to speed. While it can't really be proved (see below), the reasonable assumption is that, in practice, most of his work actually centred on electrical devices. Aside from his degree, he had some familiarity with the area because of his family's firm.


Quote:
And how much money did they earn?
His starting salary was 3,500 francs a year. This went up to 3,900 francs when the appointment was made permanent in September 1904. Then when he was promoted to Technical Expert II Class in April 1906 it went up again to 4,500 francs.
As comparisons, that starting salary was about double what he'd have been getting in the assistantships he wanted and when he resigned in 1909 it was for an Extraordinarius job in Zurich that was also paying 4,500 francs a year. And this was only after he'd pointed out that the proposed salary would be significantly less than what he was already getting.
As for whether any of this was livable on, at least one friend warned him that he wouldn't manage in Bern on the starting salary. But it could be added to by out-of-hours tutoring and lecturing. It wasn't always easy, but Albert and Mileva did manage to make ends meet in the city.

As to whether Einstein enjoyed the job once he got it, opinions differ. There are references in his and Mileva's letters from the period (but particularly her's) about how dull he finds the office and how it takes up all his time. One also finds occasional mentions of how he's started looking for other non-academic jobs. Or complaints about what they're paying him.
Yet he often made remarks about how the job was interesting, at the time and later. He even at various times recommended to his friends Conrad Habicht and Michele Besso that they apply to join. Besso did so and became a Technical Expert II Class; he had trained as a mechical engineer and had additional experience in industry. That appointment then has the non-trivial consequence that Besso's there as a physics sounding board at the Cafe Europa downstrairs from their office in the evenings after work in 1905.
There's thus been a notable recent trend to reassess the patent office job in a more positive light: see, for instance, Foelsing's Albert Einstein: Eine Biographie (1993; in English, Penguin, 1998) and Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps (Sceptre, 1993).


Quote:
Originally Posted by Kimstu
I would love to know what a few of the patent applications were that Einstein rejected. I would especially love to know if he ever rejected a design that subsequently turned out to be effective and patentable.
We'll almost certainly never know. The certificates or whatever issued to applicants weren't signed by the Technical Expert and the internal paperwork was all routinely destroyed after 18 years.
There are a couple of cases where we do know what his recommendation was, but only because matters went to court. These instances are summarised by Galison (p249-51) and seem pretty dull affairs.
(Which, of course, all undermines the UL-factoid that Einstein awarded the patent on Toblerone chocolate.)
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