Monday, August 2, 2010

Lessons from Einstein’s career progression at Swiss Patent Office

Imagine you have got a game-changing idea. You prototype it in your spare time and the demo get appreciated by a few people including a VP and a product manager. Then comes your performance appraisal and your boss rates you “above average”. He tells you the reason for the “above” part of the rating – it is because you got the Six Sigma certificate during the appraisal period. He doesn’t mention anything about your idea. Sounds surprising? Well, what happened here is similar to what happened to Einstein at Swiss Patent Office. The game-changing idea was that of “Special theory of relativity” and the certificate was the PhD degree from University of Zurich. Let’s see how the story unfolded during Einstein's six year tenure at the patent office.

In August 1900 Einstein was the only student among his friends to graduate and not get a job in spite of a respectable 4.91/6.00 average. He felt “I was suddenly abandoned by everyone standing at a loss on the threshold of life”. He had yet to publish any paper and had no credibility. After two short teaching stints in schools lasting a few months each, Einstein got called for an interview from Swiss Patent Office at Zurich in early 1902. In the interview “Albert was examined for two full hours. The director placed before him literature on new patents about which he was required to form immediate opinion. The examination unfortunately disclosed his obvious lack of technical training.” Einstein was offered a job in spite of the interview because of the good word put in by, his friend Marcel Grossman’s father Herr Grossman with the institute director Herr Friedrich Haller. The position offered, Technical Expert class III, was provisional and one level below what he was interviewed for i.e. Technical Expert class II and the salary was 3,500 francs a year. Einstein took up the job within a week of getting the formal letter sometime in the summer of 1902.

After two years, in September 1904, Einstein’s salary was revised from 3500 to 3900 francs when Haller wrote to Federal Council, Einstein had “proved himself very useful.” He should, however, remain class III rather than promoted to class II since, “he is not yet fully accustomed to matters of mechanical engineering”. The next revision happened in 1906 when his salary was increased by another 600 francs. Haller then wrote, “Einstein had continued to familiarize himself with the work, so that he handles very difficult patent applications with the greatest success and is one of the most valued experts in the office. He has acquired the title of Dr. Phil. from the University of Zurich this winter and the loss of this ma, who is still young, would be much regretted by the administration of the office.”

It is interesting to note that in the 1906 appraisal, the director did not even mention the three papers the young employee had published in the single issue of Annalen der Physik in 1905, his annus mirabilis – one important enough to take him to the history books (on Brownian motion), one which brought him the Noble prize sixteen years later (on photoelectric effect) and the third containing the outline of Special Theory of Relativity.

Moral of the story? If you have a game-changing idea, don’t expect to get “excellent” rating from your boss, at least not in the next appraisal cycle. Even by the turn of the decade (1910) there were only a handful of people in the world who had understood the impact of relativity. Einstein had to be extremely lucky to have a boss to be one of them.

What did the patent office job mean to Einstein? Three things: One – “Besides eight hours of work … eight hours of idleness plus a whole Sunday”, second, "He (Haller) taught me to express myself correctly", and third, what Einstein mentioned on his seventieth birthday, “It gave me the opportunity to think abut Physics. Moreover, a practical profession is a salvation for a man of my type; an academic career compels a young man to scientific production, and only strong characters can resist the temptation of superficial analysis”.

Source: Einstein: The life and times by Ronald Clark


  1. The moral of the story is this: It is not necessary that your boss is smarter than you. If the boss was smarter, he would have recognized the genius in Einstein.

    S Pathak

  2. Hi Pathak,

    I have slightly different take. Even if your boss is smart, if you have a radical idea, your boss will most likely not appreciate it. That is because your boss is also a human and that is how a typical person will respond to a radical idea. So it is better to prepare yourself mentally and ideally look for other avenues where your idea might be appreciated.

    Einstein's idea was appreciated by
    Max Plank, Lorentz and a few others. You need to find who your "Plank" is.


  3. Why do we see the need for extrinsic recognition where the line between motivation and manipulation will be hazy? In addition it is difficult and perhaps pointless to see the motive behind such recognition albeit some possibility of noble intent. Work undertaken by the caliber of people like Einstein perhaps is worthy because it was not measured and micro managed and perhaps done with intrinsic motivation and supreme sense of self contentment. If the work is indeed worth, a million eager folks to dish out degrees from the mundane to the noble!

  4. Each of the patents Einstein worked with may have been a 'thought seed', which would lead Einstein's physics mind in a new direction. Enough thought seeds, and Einstein might start building a body of physics thoughts that would start to combine into something special.