The Early Years

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

Einstein's Education

According to popular lore, Albert Einstein was a poor student. It is true that he did not earn top grades in every subject, but he excelled at math and science, even though he skipped classes and had to cram for exams. "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle," he wrote, "that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry." Einstein taught himself geometry at the age of 12, wrote his first "science paper" at age 16 and received his Ph.D. at the age of 26 in 1905—the same year he published four groundbreaking articles in physics.

Even as a teenager, Einstein had already developed a profound mistrust of authority. He questioned not only his teachers but also long-standing mathematical and scientific "givens," such as ancient Greek rules of geometry and laws of physics established by other scientists. Ironically, Einstein's queries and resulting breakthroughs eventually turned him into an authority himself.

The Rigors of School

Albert started his formal education at a Catholic school in Munich. The young boy ranked first in his class more than once, to the delight of his family. In 1887, Einstein transferred to the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, but he wilted under what he called a rigid atmosphere. At the age of 15, Einstein decided to educate himself.

College Bound

At age 16, Einstein took the entrance exam for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology—but failed the language and history sections. On the director's advice, Einstein enrolled in a Swiss secondary school that encouraged his "free thinking." His graduation in 1896 qualified him to enter the Federal Institute in Zurich.

Einstein enthusiastically enrolled in a math and physics program but found lectures and tests intolerable. With the aid of lecture notes from his friend Marcel Grossmann, Einstein passed the final examination and graduated, but the ordeal was so loathsome that Einstein lost interest in science for an entire year.