Capital ideas, made in Bern


A poor unemployed foreigner in his early 20s, Albert Einstein came to the Swiss capital more than a century ago. Within a few years, he would turn the universe on its head with his concepts on theoretical physics.

This content was published on December 5, 2002 minutes
Dale Bechtel in Bern,

Einstein couldn't keep still. He changed Bern residences on average once a year during the seven years he lived in the Swiss capital.

The Einstein House at Kramgasse 49 in Bern's well-preserved old town is where he lived from 1903 to 1905. It is a small museum and memorial to the physicist who has been called the greatest man of the 20th century.

In reality, the house is a rather modest two-room apartment. "Here we are in the living room. It probably served Einstein as a study as well," explains Barbara Bürki of the Einstein House.

"It's a rather large room so there was a big table in here and a nice clock on the wall. This is probably where life took place during the day." And it was when Einstein lived on Kramgasse in 1905 that he formulated his groundbreaking theories.

It was considered the miracle year. "1905 really marks the beginning of a brilliant career. He wrote the paper for which he would get the Nobel Prize later on – the light quantum hypothesis," Bürki says.

"He also wrote a paper on Brownian motion, another paper which became his doctoral dissertation – both of them on atoms and molecules. Then he worked on the special theory of relativity. Of course as we look at it nowadays, this was the most fundamental of the 1905 papers."

Living in Bern

The Einstein House attracts thousands of tourists every year wanting a brief glimpse into the life of the man whose theories were light years ahead of their time. But besides a few pictures, documents and sticks of furniture there is little to illuminate the human side of the great physicist.


Bürki took me on a tour of the city to bring the Einstein years in Bern to life.

I met her the following morning at the Café Bollwerk near the railway station – now an Italian restaurant. Einstein used to come here during lunch or after work with friends and some of his students. Now a picture and plaque hang in a corner in memory of the café's most famous patron.

The café is just around the corner from the building that housed the Swiss Patent Office when Einstein worked as an examiner during his years in Bern. In his early 20s, it was the budding physicist's first job, and a secure one at that. He worked eight hours a day, six days a week, and somehow found time for his young family and his theories.

Theoretical physics

"When he looked back on his years in Bern, he said some of his brightest ideas had come into being at the patent office. And he had his desk with a drawer, and he once had a visitor, and he opened the drawer and said this is my office of theoretical physics."

No one knows exactly where Einstein would write down his groundbreaking equations. I can imagine him scribbling away at his patent office desk when nobody was looking...or on a crumpled piece of paper while standing in the shelter of Bern's covered arcades as he walked home in the evening...Einstein probably never knew when genius was going to strike.

Einstein was young, modest – he cared little for his outward appearances – and most importantly, he was ahead of his time and not afraid to say so.

Bottling emotions

"Einstein writes to him, 'you're invited to come and see us, meaning him and his wife, at Kramgasse 49 on the second floor and we will receive you with cheerfulness and good humour and the rest of our emotions'. And he adds in brackets, 'we keep these things stored in bottling jars for special occasions such as this'."

But it wasn't only his friends and theories that helped make the seven years in Bern the happiest in his life, as Einstein described the period. He married and started a family here. Barbara Bürki says he was a loving husband and father, who used to build his son working cable railways out of matchboxes.

Bürki is still searching the city where Einstein and Mileva Mari, before they were married, used to meet secretly.

"She lived at Bubenbergstrasse 3 and they had a meeting place, and they called it the 'little tower' and I don't know exactly where the little tower was but I like to stroll through Bern thinking well maybe this was the little tower where Einstein and Mileva used to meet."

Back at the Einstein House at Kramgasse 49, a visitor from Britain is not interested in Einstein the family man, or physicist for that matter, but Einstein the philosopher:

"Some of the quotes he made were absolutely extraordinary. We were just discussing the one there – 'blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth'. It's absolutely extraordinary."

Key facts

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879. His family moved shortly afterwards to Munich, then to Italy and finally to Switzerland.

He continued his education in Aarau and in 1896 he entered Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology to train as a maths and physics teacher.

In 1901 he became a Swiss citizen and a year later began working at Bern's Patent Office.

In 1905 he produced five groundbreaking papers on theoretical physics.

In 1909 he took up a teaching position in Zurich and moved on to Prague in 1911.

Einstein died on April 18, 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey.

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In brief

The Einstein House is the best starting point for a tour of Einstein's Bern. Among the displays are the addresses and pictures of Einstein's other residences in the city.

The Café Bollwerk, also called the L'Aragosta, is located at the corner of Bollwerk and Aarbergergasse on the east side of the railway station.

The former Swiss Patent Office, now a Swisscom building, is found at the corner of Speichergasse and Genfergasse.

The current patent office, now the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property, is on the street named after Einstein in the leafy Kirchenfeld neighbourhood.

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