Born in Germany on 14 March 1879, Albert Einstein became well established in the scientific community for his general theories of relativity, which redefined understandings of space, time, matter, energy, and gravity. In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect – and he is today considered one of the most respected figures in the history of science. Read on for the story of his life or jump to 5 little-known facts

Albert Einstein: a brief biography

Born: 14 March 1879 in Germany

Married: Mileva Marić m.1903-div.1919; Elsa Löwenthal m.1919

Died: Aged 76, 18 April 1955 in New Jersey, USA

Remembered as: One of the most famous theoretical physicists of the 20th century

Albert Einstein's early life

Albert Einstein was the eldest child of Hermann Einstein, an electrical engineer and salesman, and Pauline Koch. He had one sister, named Maja. Just six weeks after Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, his family moved to Munich. From a young age Einstein showed a keen interest in music, and he learned how to play the piano and violin. In 1887 Einstein began his education at the Luitpold Gymnasium (a secondary school) in Munich.

Albert Einstein as a young child, with a large bow tie
Albert Einstein as a young child, c1880s. He was the eldest child of Hermann Einstein, an electrical engineer and salesman, and Pauline Koch. (Image by Getty Images)

In 1896, aged 17, Einstein enrolled at Zürich Polytechnic, where he studied for a mathematics and physics teaching diploma. Four years later he completed his diploma but was unable to find a teaching job, so he began work at the Swiss Patent Office as a technical assistant in 1901.

Einstein met Mileva Marić while they both were studying at Zürich Polytechnic. The couple married in 1903 and together they had two sons. It has been suggested the couple may have had a daughter before they married, but the child may have died or been adopted. The couple ultimately separated in 1914 before divorcing in 1919. Einstein married his second wife, Elsa Löwenthal, in 1919.

Albert Einstein's research

In 1900, after completing his diploma at Zürich Polytechnic, Einstein began researching for a doctorial thesis. In 1905 he completed a doctorate degree from the University of Zurich. In the same year, four of his research papers were published, including one on the special theory of relativity, which revealed new findings on the relationship between time and space.

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Young Albert Einstein, with black hair and mustache
Albert Einstein c1905, the year he published his Theory of Relativity. (Image by Getty Images)

After demonstrating his impressive work in theoretical physics, Einstein was made a privatdozent [an academic title conferred by some European universities, especially in German-speaking countries] in Bern, Switzerland in 1908.

Einstein became professor extraordinary [a lower-ranking professorship] at University of Zurich in 1909, before being made professor of theoretical physics at Charles University in Prague in 1911. Einstein’s academic career developed further in 1914 when he became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics and a professor at the University of Berlin.

In 1915 Einstein published his work on the general theory of relativity, which suggests that “space and time are woven together, and become distorted by objects with mass”. This theory is considered by many to be the most significant scientific concept developed in modern-day physics. As a result of his outstanding work, in 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for services to theoretical physics.

What was Einstein's Theory of Relativity?

The start of 1905 saw Albert Einstein working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern. Unemployed and broke, he had been grateful to get the job in 1902, and his job as a clerk gave Einstein time to think physics and quietly formulate several theories.

To have one published in Annalen der Physik, the world’s foremost physics journal, would have been a great achievement but in 1905, the 26-year-old Einstein had four in print. Those publications changed everything, both for him and the scientific world.

His work on the photoelectric effect, in which he applied the quantum theory to light, was published in June, followed in July by a paper on Brownian motion, providing experimental proof of the existence of atoms.

But it was in September that his now-famous work on special relativity was printed. And he was not even finished. He followed his fundamental findings concerning space and time with a paper enhancing the theory with the equation, E=mc².

In these four papers, Einstein addressed the most important and complex questions of the era. Einstein’s year, dubbed ‘annus mirabilis’ (miracle year), has gone down in history as a feat of unprecedented scientific creativity that revised notions of space, time, mass and energy, and set the stage for modern physics.

His work, however, received little acclaim at first. He needed the attention of physicist Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, before receiving due recognition. From then, his prestige and career blossomed. He held academic posts in Europe, and created his general theory of relativity. Yet, despite the years of brilliant research that followed, it seems fitting that, in 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize not for his work on relativity, but for the very first of his 1905 papers.

Einstein during the Second World War

With the rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s, the Nazi party began to restrict the number of Jews who could hold academic positions in universities across Germany. Einstein, who was from a Jewish family, feared facing persecution. In 1933 he renounced his German citizenship and emigrated to the US, where he became a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Albert Einstein playing the violin
Albert Einstein playing the violin, c1931. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt to express his fears that the Nazis were developing nuclear weapons. He warned the president that the US needed to begin its own research into atomic bombs in order to protect the country from the Nazi threat. This letter influenced the establishment of the Manhattan Project, led by physicist J Robert Oppenheimer – the research scheme that initiated the development of the first nuclear weapons. However, Einstein himself refused involvement in the Manhattan Project, as he was a pacifist.

Einstein stands in front of a blackboard covered with mathematical equations
In the later years of his life, Einstein continued to work as a theoretical physicist. (Image by Getty Images)

After the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Einstein became active in the political movement to prevent the use of atomic bombs in the future.

In the 1940s Einstein also became involved in campaigns advocating civil rights in the US, and he joined National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1946 he made an impassioned speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in which he stated that racism is "a disease of white people".

In the later years of his life, Einstein continued to work as a theoretical physicist, and he further developed his theory of general relativity.

When did Albert Einstein die?

On 17 April 1955, Einstein experienced an abdominal aortic aneurysm and internal bleeding, but refused to undergo surgery [it has been suggested he may have wished to decide when he could die]. He died the next day at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, aged 76.

Just hours after his death, Einstein’s brain was removed without the permission of his family, and it was taken to the University of Pennsylvania. It was dissected, cut into 240 pieces, and samples were put onto slides, ready to be examined under a microscope. Einstein’s son Hans Albert eventually agreed for his father’s brain to be used for scientific investigation.

Over the past six decades, numerous studies have been published on Einstein’s brain, and some scientists have even suggested that the unusual features of his brain [such as having an extra ridge on his mid-frontal lobe] may be linked to his high level of intelligence.

In 1999, TIME Magazine named Einstein as the ‘Person of the Century’.

5 little-known facts about Albert Einstein

Andrew Robinson reveals five surprising facts about the famous physicist, from his theory of relativity to his views on pacifism and nuclear weapons…

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was rejected in Britain until 1919

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity made him instantly famous when it was confirmed by British astronomers, led by scientist Arthur Eddington, during a solar eclipse in 1919. But when the unknown Einstein first published it in 1905, the theory convinced hardly a single British thinker – either in the sciences or the humanities. University of Cambridge scientists either ignored, reinterpreted or rejected relativity, for lack of experimental evidence, until it was accepted and taught to undergraduates by Eddington in 1920. University of Oxford philosophers were even more scathing, ridiculing the theory as late as 1919 because it appeared to contradict their training in the Greek classics such as Euclid.

A young Albert Einstein poses in front of bookshelves, wearing a cardigan
Albert Einstein, photographed c1920. (Image by Getty Images)

Albert Einstein abandoned pacifism as soon as the Nazis came to power

Einstein’s militant pacifism in response to the First World War is well known. Less known is his change of mind in 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, in favour of European military rearmament against the Nazi threat—long before most European and American politicians. In 1939, he even recommended to US President Franklin Roosevelt the building of an atomic bomb, thereby helping to launch the Manhattan Project in 1941–2. But after the Second World War, Einstein changed his mind yet again and fought very publicly against nuclear weapons. His last public act, days before his death in 1955, was to sign the anti-nuclear Russell-Einstein Manifesto, initiated by British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Albert Einstein delivers a US television broadcast against the hydrogen bomb, with microphones in the foreground
Albert Einstein delivers a US television broadcast against the hydrogen bomb, c1950. (Image by Getty Images)

Albert Einstein turned down the presidency of Israel

In 1952, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, following the death of his long-time sparring partner, Chaim Weizmann. He turned it down, while simultaneously observing that his relationship with the Jewish people had become his “strongest human bond”. This decision was the culmination of three decades of ambivalence towards Zionism. Jewish by birth, and also by sympathy, Einstein always suspected that Zionism would encourage the use of violence. Although he raised money for the Zionist cause in the 1920s, and supported the foundation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—to which he willed all of his papers after his death—Einstein remained too much of an individualist to commit himself to any nation.

Albert Einstein never returned to Europe after 1933

From the 1920s, Einstein was celebrated as a citizen of the world, partly as a result of his global lectures in Europe, Japan, Palestine, South America and the United States. But after he left Europe in 1933, and settled in Princeton, New Jersey, he never returned to his homeland. Indeed, he never left America before his death in 1955 – despite countless invitations to travel. Part of this reluctance was his undying distrust of his native Germany following the horrors of the Nazi period. In addition, Einstein had no wish to entangle himself in the politics of Palestine. But most of all, he loved solitude in Princeton for the sake of his all-important physics.

Albert Einstein is probably the most quoted figure of our time

Einstein is one of the most widely quoted people of all time, and probably the most quoted figure from the 20th century. The website Wikiquote has many more entries for Einstein than for Aristotle, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawking, and even than Einstein’s opinionated contemporaries Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw – including an ever-expanding section of misquotations and invented ‘quotations’. Beyond science, Einstein was an avid commentator on education, marriage, money, the nature of genius, music-making, politics and more. As he seriously joked to a friend in 1930: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.”

Andrew Robinson is the author of 25 books in the arts and sciences, including Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World's Greatest Scientist (Yale University Press, 2019)


This HistoryExtra article was updated in July 2023