Just Passing Through: The Day Einstein Came To Town

By Lisa Schmelz

On an overcast Saturday morning, Daniel Einstein, the historic and cultural resources manager for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is just inside Yerkes Observatory with a small tour group. it is his first visit to this wondrous institution, and while he does not bear a resemblance to his famed and distant cousin Albert Einstein, he is following in his footsteps simply by being here.

Ninety-one years ago, Albert Einstein came to America for the first time and according to local legend, which may or may not be true, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist asked to see just two places in the United States. One was Niagara Falls in upstate New York. The other was Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, the birthplace of modern astrophysics.

Here to raise funds for the establishment of a Jewish university in Jerusalem, his visit wowed the masses. In a two-month whirlwind tour, thousands would line the streets to catch a glimpse of him. His global celebrity, powered by his theory of relativity, eclipsed the very science that made him a household name. That few understood his theories meant nothing. Seeing, hearing or touching the man whose brilliance was changing everything was the goal of the crowds that followed him everywhere.

But a remarkable thing seemed to happen when he came to Yerkes: Albert Einstein got to be much like anyone else touring this majestic place. As proud as the tiny village of Williams Bay was of Einstein’s visit, residents here were not the gawking type, and nothing in the local archives of Friday, May 6, 1921, point to any sort of hoopla surrounding his visit. Beyond a photograph of Einstein standing with Yerkes’ staff in front of the observatory’s massive refractory telescope, there is little documentation of his visit at all.

Even a person for whom the past is a vocation, and whose family tree arcs in Einstein’s direction, has trouble feeling his presence in the Italianate halls of Yerkes Observatory.

“I often do speculate about the importance of someone notable who visited a particular location or place,” says Daniel Einstein. “I didn’t necessarily feel it here. This was just a flash in the pan. There was no lasting history.”


Albert Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, who was also his second cousin, set sail for America from Rotterdam, Holland, sometime in March 1921. Their trip was set in motion at the urging of Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization. A Russian biochemist, it was Weizmann who asked the secular Jewish Einstein, for whom religion had never been a priority, to accompany him on the trip, which would raise money to help settle Palestine and create what is now Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Einstein’s eventual support of the Zionist cause came the way most of his decisions did — after thoughtful deliberation. In post-World War I Europe, he viewed “nationalism the problem rather than the solution” and did not immediately embrace the call for a Jewish homeland. But ultimately, the growing wave of anti-Semitism surrounding him in Berlin would lead him to join the Zionist cause. He would expand on his views in an interview that appeared in the May 3, 1921 edition of Chicago Daily Tribune:

“The thing that led me to take such an active interest in the proposed university at Jerusalem was the situation that developed among Jewish students in central Europe after the war. A great number of young Jewish students had completed their preparatory courses and were ready to enter colleges and universities, but were prohibited from doing so because the schools were overcrowded. Prejudice against my race also has something to do with the situation. As a result, it was difficult for a young Jew to complete his education,” Einstein said in the interview.

On the afternoon of April 2, Albert and Elsa Einstein arrived by ship at the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The New York Times reported that he “looked like an artist,” standing on the deck, clad in a black felt hat that covered his unkempt gray hair, holding a pipe in one hand and a worn violin case in the other. (Numerous scholars report that the only way Einstein could relax was by smoking a cigar or with music.)

Plans called for the Einsteins to disembark and proceed with the Weizmanns to their hotel, the Commodore. But the thousands assembled in Battery Park had other ideas. Following their singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah,” the Einsteins and Weizmanns found themselves in a motorcade that traversed the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side well into darkness.

“Every car had its horn, and every horn was put into action,” recalled Weizmann. “We reached the Commodore at about 11:30, tired, hungry, thirsty and completely dazed.”


Trying to wrap my own brain around Einstein’s theories of relativity is only successful when I am reading about it. The moment I cease reading, what little I know, despite the law of conservation of mass, completely vanishes. The only thing I can retain without a cheat sheet is Einstein’s famed equation, E=mc2 and that it helped give birth to the atomic bomb.

This is how I found myself conversing via e-mail with my best friend’s brother, a brilliant East Coast physicist who is just as patient with slow learners as he is with higher math. In a series of e-mails, he gently explained some of Einstein’s theories. He summarized relativity like this:

“So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that it totally and completely reinterprets everything that people knew about gravity. Note that the ‘law’ of gravity that Isaac Newton postulated in 1686 had held without challenge for more than 200 years. What Einstein proposed was (not) really that Newton was wrong, but rather that Newton only described a special case of the theory of gravity that only works when things are moving slow compared to the speed of light (186,000 miles/second) and the force of gravity is relatively weak…. So we have this crazy theory that proposes that the force of gravity doesn’t really exist, and that what we call gravity is actually the ‘curvature of space time.’ This could all be dismissed as crazy stuff. Maybe we should up his meds. But, there was one easily testable prediction. GR (General Relativity) predicts that light should be bent by gravity, even though it has no mass. As you know, satellites, planets and asteroids and things that fl y through space have their trajectories altered when they go past big massive things like stars or planets. Einstein predicted that the same would be true for light, while Newton said no…. After WWI, a bunch of astronomers went to Africa, took some pictures of the sun and proved Einstein right. Rock star!”


As Daniel Einstein and the crowd of some 20-plus others amass for the Saturday morning tour offered at Yerkes, the question that is always asked comes up quickly: Why did Albert Einstein come here? The question is not directed to Daniel Einstein, whose lineage is unknown to those in the crowd and looks like any other out-of-towner in his khaki shorts, green polo and Tevas. The question is aimed at Richard Dreiser, outreach director at this working observatory.

Dreiser responds to the question from the center of the observatory’s entryway, which remains nearly the same as it was when Einstein climbed the front stairs 91 years ago.

“It must have meant that he recognized that the University of Chicago was on the forefront of astrophysics in the world during that time,” he says. “Einstein undoubtedly would have wanted to speak to some of the astrophysicists.”

True enough, but why make the journey, most likely by train, from Chicago to Williams Bay? Why not have Yerkes faculty come to him or simply speak to faculty based in Chicago?

“Perhaps nobody knew what to do with him,” quips Dreiser.

Dreiser’s theory, though made in jest, is interesting. The only documentation that Yerkes was one of Einstein’s two American must-sees comes from a local newspaper, Lake Geneva News; true to the flowery journalism of the time, the paper quotes neither Einstein nor anyone with Yerkes when it makes the assertion. Although his visit to Yerkes made front-page local news, the paper does not appear to have dispatched a reporter or photographer to cover it.

During his time in Chicago, which was hosted by the university, Einstein conducted a number of lectures on and near the campus. In fact, after his brief tour of Yerkes, he returned to Chicago to give an evening lecture. The idea that someone at the university, unsure of what to do with a genius for a week, would hatch a trip to Yerkes is plausible. We’ll never know whether it was Einstein’s desire or that of his handlers to make the trek to Williams Bay.

What we do know is that he came and returned on the same day and nothing suggests that the good people of Williams Bay stopped what they were doing to meet him. Papers left by the observatory’s director at the time, Edwin B. Frost, reveal Einstein’s time here to be light years apart from the celebrity universe he had been occupying. In a May 20, 1921 letter to Max Epstein, who helped arrange Einstein’s visit to Yerkes, Frost enclosed a photograph of Einstein and the observatory staff, stating that “all connected with the University of Chicago as well as many other people outside of our institution have greatly enjoyed the opportunity you gave us of hearing and meeting Dr. Einstein, who left a most agreeable impression of his personal character as well as his great intellectual power.”

One agreeable impression, however, does not a dimple in the fabric of time make. Albert Einstein was here, yes, but his light lingered at Yerkes for a period so small it barely illuminates. It simply did what Einstein told us light would do: It bent and traveled on.

“He was just passing through,” says Daniel Einstein. “Just passing through town.”

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