Swiss patent office

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A dissertation about the Swiss patent office in our period was completed by Nicolas Chachereau at the University of Lausanne. He presented a paper at the EBHA 2019 conference about it. One paper is called Innovation and the Law: The Business Reaction to the Introduction of a Patent System in Switzerland (1888–1914). He's in the EBHA 2019 program:

Einstein at the patent office

Marcel Grossman helped Einstein get a job in the patent office.[1] On June 16, 1902, the Swiss Council "elected" Einstein provisionally to be a Technical Expert Class 3 in the Federal Office for Intellectual Property. This gave him an annual salary of 3500 francs. He worked in an office in Bern's new Postal and Telegraph Building. He worked 6 days a week, starting at 8am, for 8 hours, examining patent applications. His boss was Friedrich Haller, who tended to think it was necessary to question premises, challenge conventional wisdom, and be skeptical of claims in a patent application. Einstein's own family had patents. He found the process fulfilling and it gave him practice at thought experiments.[2] In 1904, he was taken off of the probationary/provisional status.

He and his engineer friend and colleague Michele Besso examined electromechanical device patents. Besso was a helpful sounding board. Isaacson cites several historians of science who have views on the effect of this role on Einstein. Peter Galison and Arthur I. Miller think it was more significant, and Alberto Martinez, John Norton, and Tilman Sauer think less so.[3] Besso is described as Einstein's best friend, as a brilliant but unfocused engineer. The book says Besso and Einstein had met when Einstein was studying in Zurich, and Einstein recruited Besso to work at the patent office. They often walked to work together. Besso was the only person cited in Einstein's most famous work, 1905's "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies."[4] Einstein and Besso were responsible for evaluating electromechanical device patent applications, notably a wave of inventions for electric signals to synchronize clocks.[5]

In September 1905, Einstein invited Conrad Habicht to work at the patent office too. Conrad's brother Paul was a good machinist and the three of them created some devices together.[6]

In 1907, Einstein had earned his doctorate and was promoted to a second-class technical expert, which came with an annual salary of 4500 francs.[7]

In 1909, on one of his last days at the patent office, he was invited to receive an honorary doctorate.[8] He returned to Zurich to be a professor in October, 1909.[9]


  1. Isaacson, p.149
  2. Isaacson, pp 77-79, p.113
  3. Isaacson, pp 113, 122-123, 578n10
  4. Isaacson, pp 122-123
  5. Isaacson, p126
  6. Isaacson, p. 137-38, 143-44
  7. Isaacson, p. 142-43
  8. Isaacson, p. 154-55
  9. Isaacson, p. 158


  • Walter Isaacson. 2007. Einstein: his life and universe. Simon & Shuster.