The Nobel Prize-winning physicist credits Prague with helping him develop one his key theories
Albert Einstein, then aged 32, lived in Prague for 16 months from 1911–12, along with his wife and children.
According to his own writings, the atmosphere of Prague helped him find the necessary elements to give shape to one of his major achievements, the general theory of relativity, which was published in 1916.
He described the city as “so beautiful, it would justify living here a lot longer.” What fate led him to spend these valuable years of his life in this city, and what was his Prague life like?
In 1910, the German University in Prague had a vacancy for a professor of physics. The commission of competence recommended that the position should be offered to Einstein, who at the time was coincidentally very intrigued by Prague. By April 1911, he started his position. As Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, university appointments were at that time made by the Ministry of Culture and Education in Vienna.
Einstein and his family — wife Mileva and sons Hans Albert and Edward — resided in Smíchov at Trebížského Street no. 1215, now named Lesnická street. They lived in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment, on the left bank of river Vltava. The house now holds a plaque and life-size figure of Einstein’s head.
When Einstein was not at home or lecturing, he would be found at one of his two favorite places in Prague – Café Louvre, an elegant and airy Art Nouveau café on Národní třída, or Mrs. Berta Fanta’s salon on Old Town Square
Louvre was a preferred café for the Jewish intellectuals of the time, over other cafés such as Café Slavia. Here, he would often meet with his friend and literary prodigy, Franz Kafka. He also visited several lectures by anthroposopher Rudolf Stein, which were held in the Café, and was impressed by Steiner’s opinions on non-Euclidian geometry.
He would also visit a salon at Old Town Square. A plaque on building No.17, called At the Unicorn (U Jednorožce), states that was the building he visited. The building had a pharmacy called ‘At the Unicorn’ until 1945, and now has a bookstore called U Jednorožce.
A higher plaque on the building shows a man with a lamb that has a single horn, leading the building to be called At the Stone Lamb in some books.
There are other buildings on the square called At the White Unicorn (no. 15) and At the Golden Unicorn (no. 20). It causes some confusion, but the plaque is in the right spot.
The salon was said to be the center for stimulating discussions for the German-speaking scientific and artistic elites of the time, such as Franz Kafka and Max Brod.
It is claimed that they would speak of philosophy and literature, Franz Kafka would sometimes read from his works, while Einstein would play Mozart’s Violin Sonata in a duet accompanied by Max Brod on piano.
During his stay in Prague, he wrote about 15 theoretical papers on the theory of relativity, gravitation, radiation mathematics, thermodynamics and quantum physics. There were two important effects in particular, which Einstein discovered in Prague: the deflection of light and the gravitational redshift.
In his foreword to the 1923 Czech edition of his popular book About the Special and General Theory of Relativity in Plain Terms, Einstein himself emphasized Prague as the city that helped him develop some of his ideas.
“I am pleased that this small book … should now appear in the native language of the country in which I found the necessary concentration for developing the basic idea of the general theory of relativity, which I had already conceived in 1908. In the quiet rooms of the Institute of Theoretical Physics of Prague’s German University in Viničná Street, I discovered that the principle of equivalence implies the deflection of light rays near the sun by an observable amount,” he wrote.
His journey to work was just under 20 minutes – retracing his steps, he would cross Palacký Bridge, walk through Na Moráni street, past Faust’s house, and then he would reach Viničná Street 7, which now belongs to the faculty of natural sciences of Charles University. In addition to that post, he lectured theoretical physics at Klementinum, today’s Slavic Library, where his lectures in fact received much larger audiences.
Einstein adored historical Prague, especially Charles Bridge and the Kampa area. The only aspect he didn’t enjoy was the pollution in Prague – but it should be noted, that he lived in Smíchov, which was becoming an increasingly industrialized area at the time. Additionally, he wouldn’t drink Prague’s tap water, and would deem it undrinkable, until he boiled it first.
Einstein left Prague in the summer of 1912, after accepting another offer from the University of Technology in Zurich. His family drew apart a few years later, finally leading to a divorce with his wife in 1919, on the ground of “natural incompatibility.” Einstein then married his niece, Elsa, shortly after his divorce.
A few decades later, Einstein embodied Czech life again after the communist government began political executions of victims such as Milada Horáková. Einstein wrote a telegram to the Czech president of the time, Klement Gotwald: “They were all victims of German concentration camps,” he pleaded. “I am certain that they deserve to live.” This did not help the cause.
In 1995, it was reported that the youngest son of Einstein from his second marriage was living in Prague under his adopted name Ludek Zakl (1932–2000). However, as archives in Maternity Hospital U Apolináře, where Ludek was allegedly born, have been destroyed, this will most likely never be proven. Nevertheless, the resemblance between Zakl and Einstein is extremely strong.
Einstein has left a wide trail of his life behind in Prague. Other than numerous plaques bearing his name and face, a street ‘Einsteinova’ in Prague 10 – Petrovice is named after him.