Blast from the Past: Einstein & Thomas Jefferson were patent- examiners!

Albert Einstein at his lectern in the patent office
Albert Einstein at his lectern in the patent office

While patent examiners are generally known for helping others obtain patents, who would have known that a famous inventor and scientist, none other than the great Albert Einstein, was himself a patent-examiner once!

 As the story goes, Albert Einstein was appointed at the federal patent office in Bern (Switzerland) in 1902. It is believed that upon graduation, Einstein tried to get a job as a teacher, but without any luck. It was then that he secured a job as a patent examiner with the help of Marcel Grossmann, a friend and classmate of Einstein.

Einstein described this work as his “cobbler’s trade” and it is believed that Einstein was extremely bored with his work. Ironically though, Einstein’s stint as a patent examiner turned out to be the most productive years of his life because it led him to propound his famous theory of relativity in 1905. (Not surprising since the Swiss patent office was located near the famous Clock Tower in Bern and Einstein was processing clock patents at the time!)

Einstein would quickly finish any work that was assigned to him in the patent office and would spend the remainder of his time, working out his scientific theories. It is said that Einstein managed his time perfectly, eight hours of work, eight hours of scientific and miscellaneous work and eight hours of sleep (which he would often spend writing his manuscripts). Einstein was soon promoted to the post of a technical assistant- level II in the patent office in 1906. After working for 3 more years, Einstein left his job as a patent-examiner to teach theoretical physics at University of Zurich.

Einstein himself acknowledged the role that his work at the patent office played in his scientific career; Einstein refers to the patent office as “a wordly cloister where he hatched his most beautiful ideas.”

Apart from Einstein, another famous person to have worked as a patent examiner is Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of America and the third US President is regarded as the first US patent examiner. Thomas Jefferson who was himself an inventor, granted the first US patent in 1790; the patent was granted to a method to improve the making of potash.

Thomas Jefferson

Back in 1790, there was no Patent Office to grant patents. Under the Patent Act of 1790, a panel comprising the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War and the Attorney General would examine the applications for patents and accordingly grant patents. Jefferson (who was the Secretary of State at that time) realized that this was burdening the Cabinet unduly and was taking up much of the Cabinet’s time. Consequently, he proposed to the Congress that a separate office for scrutinizing patent applications must be set up in United States along the lines of the patent offices that existed in United Kingdom at that time.

This paved the way for the modern U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

[This article is a part of Spicy IP’s Blast from the Past series where we scour interesting IP-related trivia from yesteryears. Read our earlier posts in this series on Pyaasa (1957) & vintage ads and if you know any interesting IP trivia, do let us know.]




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