Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He was the first child born to Hermann and Pauline, a bourgeois Jewish couple married three years earlier. Hermann began work as a merchant in the featherbed industry, but when his business collapsed, he moved his family to Munich to start an electrical-engineering business with his brother Jakob. This venture was largely supported by the Kochs, Pauline Einstein's parents. Pauline, a talented musician, introduced her son to the piano when he was a small boy and encouraged his passion for the violin, an instrument he studied from ages six to thirteen.

In 1881, Hermann and Pauline had a second child, Maria. Called Maja by all who knew her, she was Albert's closest childhood friend. Her biography of Einstein, written in 1924, is the source of much of the lore about Einstein's early years. For instance, Maria relates that when Einstein was born, his mother worried that his head was too large and his grandmother exclaimed that he was "much too fat." A few years later, when Einstein was four or five, he had his first scientific experience: his father showed him a pocket compass and the young boy marveled at the fact that regardless of where the compass was turned, the needle always pointed north. Einstein thus demonstrated an interest in science and problem-solving even before he entered school.

Einstein's formal education began at age six, when he enrolled in the Petersschule on Blumenstrasse, a Catholic elementary school in Munich. Since his parents were not practicing Jews, they cared more about the school's academic standards than its religious affiliation. Einstein did well in school, but he was a quiet child and kept his distance from his peers. He was uncomfortable with the principle of absolute obedience and the military drills that dominated the school's atmosphere. The young Einstein preferred to build houses of cards and play with his sister at home.

At the age of ten, Einstein was accepted into the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, a formal and respected institution that emphasized Latin and Greek over mathematics and science. Unhappy with the educational program at school, Einstein turned to a course of personal study outside of school. His Uncle Jakob lent him a book of algebra and sent him math puzzles to solve. In addition, a twenty-one-year-old medical student named Max Talmud, a friend of Einstein's family, lent him books on popular science and philosophy that the young boy eagerly devoured.

At the age of eleven, Einstein went through an intense but brief religious phase in which he observed the kosher dietary laws, read the Bible avidly, and composed short hymns to the glory of God. However, midway through his preparation to become a Bar Mitzvah, he became disillusioned with his faith as a result of his growing scientific awareness. By the time he turned thirteen, he had come to resent organized religion and all forms of dogmatic instruction.

In 1893, Einstein's father and uncle sold their business and moved south to Italy. They planned for the boy to remain in a boarding house in Munich to complete his education in the gymnasium before joining his family in Pavia. However, after six more unhappy months at school, Einstein persuaded a doctor to write him an official note diagnosing him with "neurasthenic exhaustion." This provided him with an excuse for leaving school and moving to Italy. Einstein may also have been motivated by the desire to escape military conscription, since German law stipulated that if a boy left the country before the age of seventeen, he would be exempt from military service.

Einstein's unexpected arrival in Pavia surprised and dismayed his parents. The boy announced that he intended to renounce both his German citizenship and his Jewish faith; these renunciations testified to his isolation and independence from the world around him. However, he reassured his parents that he planned to study for the entrance examinations at the Federal Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich, an advanced technical institute.

Though Einstein studied physics diligently during the summer of 1895 in preparation from the Zurich Polytechnic, he failed the necessary exams for admission. At the suggestion of the principal of the Polytechnic, he spent the next year in a Swiss secondary school in Aarau preparing to retake the examination. There, he boarded in the home of Jost Winteler, a teacher at the school. Einstein got along well with the seven Winteler children and enjoyed his year in Aarau immensely. By the time he received his diploma in 1896, he had become a confident, self-assured, and increasingly communicative individual, a far cry from the quiet and lonely boy of his gymnasium days.

Popular pages: Albert Einstein