Web edition: August 26, 2011
Print edition: September 10, 2011; Vol.180 #6 (p. 32)
December 5, 1936 | Vol. 30 | No. 817
Einstein invents automatic camera with “electric eye”
Dr. Albert Einstein, the famed proponent of relativity and acknowledged leader of the science of mathematical physics, stands revealed on the records of the U.S. Patent Office as the inventor of a camera that snaps photographs with the proper aperture and exposure automatically determined.
He has applied the photoelectric cells or “electric eye” to cameras. Experts reading the patent specifications foresee the possibility that the invention will be practically and commercially important in the next few years.
The patent is No. 2,058,562 and the application was filed on Dec. 11, 1935, by Dr. Einstein jointly with Dr. Gustav Bucky of New York City.
This is the way the Bucky- Einstein camera works: Light from the scene or object being photographed comes into an auxiliary lens and falls on the photoelectric cell. There is a screen of varying transparency mounted in the main camera lens system that is moved in accord with the amount of light that the electric eye sees, letting more light fall on the photographic plate when necessary.
So far as can be judged, abstruse mathematical theory was not needed in designing the patented camera but Einstein’s genius probably contributed largely to making it operate correctly.
UPDATE | September 10, 2011
An inventor behind the genius
Most autoexposure cameras use a different mechanism from the one proposed by Einstein and Gustav Bucky.
It should come as no surprise that Albert Einstein, known for revolutionizing physics with his theory of relativity, was also an inventor. After all, his father ran an electrical technology business, and Albert spent a lot of time working at the Swiss patent office.
Within five years of Einstein and Gustav Bucky’s receiving the patent for their “light intensity self-adjusting camera,” Kodak began advertising a camera called the Super Six-20, with an “electric eye” that automatically corrects exposure. Despite surface similarities between the two cameras, patent drawings show no shared underlying principle of operation. It is also unlikely that Einstein’s proposed camera has much to do with the digital, pocket-sized picture-taking gadgets people use today.
His work with refrigeration in the 1920s, though, had a larger impact. During that decade he joined with the much younger Leo Szilard to develop a design for a refrigerator that wouldn’t leak toxic gas from its mechanical parts. The solution: Eliminate the mechanical parts. Known as the Einstein-Szilard electromagnetic pump, the most successful design relied on an electromagnetic field to move a metallic liquid that then compressed the refrigerant. The inventors were paid well, largely because of an agreement with a German electric company.
Einstein is also credited in part with patents for gyrocompasses and a hearing aid. Perhaps his most unusual patent, an “ornamental design for a blouse,” was awarded in 1936. The garment’s defining quality was its side openings, which also served as armholes. Functional and fashionable, if not exactly genius. —Elizabeth Quill
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images