Albert Einstein's Forgotten Inventions
Albert Einstein's unsurpassed prowess in physics needs no introduction, but lesser known is that his creative genius and curiosity extended beyond the realm of relativity and photoelectrics into tinkering and inventing. Over his life, Einstein filed patents for a range of innovative products.
The first, and most successful, of his exploits was a refrigerator. In the 1920s, nascent refrigerators used highly toxic, corrosive, or flammable compounds like sulfur dioxide or methyl formate as refrigerants. When passed through tubes and chambers while being pressurized and depressurized, these chemicals could efficiently cool a target chamber. However, moving them around required motors, and thus moving parts, which were subject to breaking down or leaking. When Einstein read a news article about an entire family in Berlin who died in their sleep by breathing in leaking refrigerant fumes, he resolved to do something about it.
He and his colleague Leo Szilard thus spent the early 1930s designing a refrigerator that utilized calmer chemicals – butane, ammonia and water – as well as an ingenious electromagnetic pump. The system required no internal moving parts and was completely sealed. All it needed was an external heat source in the form of a contained natural gas flame.
Alas, Einstein and Szilard's refrigerator was not at all efficient and it was very loud. Moreover, freon soon arrived on the market as a safe, non-toxic refrigerant to remedy the problem Einstein originally sought to solve. But while Einstein's refrigerator fizzled out roughly eighty years ago, engineers are now exploring ways to make his design more efficient and useful in everyday life. One young designer adapted it to create an electricity-free vaccine cooler for use in the developing world.
Einstein's next inventing foray was in the realm of auditory technology. He and German inventor Rudolf Goldschmidt aimed to design an electro-acoustical hearing aid.
As Asis Kumar Chaudhuri, the head of the Theoretical Physics Group at Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata, India explained in a paper published to arXiv, "The basic idea was to convert the acoustical signal into electrical oscillation and transmit the signal by some sort of membrane attached to the skull such that the bone could conduct it to the hearing organ."
The duo were granted a patent for an "electromagnetic sound reproduction apparatus" in 1934, but were forced to end their collaboration when both fled Germany during the rise of the Third Reich.
A year later, Einstein was at it again, this time working with his longtime friend Gustav Peter Bucky to create a camera (pictured at the top of the article) that automatically adjusted to ambient light levels. They succeeded. In their design, light would strike a photoelectric cell inside the camera, powering a shaft connected to screens of varying transparency. Depending on the light intensity, the photoelectric cell would adjust which screen would go in front of the main lens.
"Dr. Albert Einstein, the famed proponent of relativity and acknowledged leader of the science of mathematical physics, stands revealed on the records of the U.S. Patent Office as the inventor of a camera that snaps photographs with the proper aperture and exposure automatically determined," a story published to ScienceNews in December 1936 declared.
But not much happened after that. Kodak introduced the first consumer camera with automatic exposure, the Super Six-20, in 1938 using a design different from Einstein's.
Not all of Einstein's inventions were technologically complex. On the same day he and Bucky received their camera patent, Einstein was also granted a patent for a blouse. Yes, a blouse.
"Be it known that I, Albert Einstein, a citizen of the German Republic, residing in the Borough of Manhattan, county of New York, and State of New York, have invented a new, original, and ornamental Design for a Blouse," Einstein wrote on the patent application.
Aside from its refined, futuristic flair, the garment stood out for its adjustable waistline. Einstein perhaps saw a market in aging, stylish men with burgeoning bellies.
Primary Source: Asis Kumar Chaudhuri, "Einstein's Patents and Inventions," arXiv, https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.00666