Albert Einstein goes digital

Thousands of the influential scientist's papers are now available online.

Thousands of Albert Einstein's groundbreaking works are finally available online, thanks to a decades-long joint digitization effort between the Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Einstein Papers Project, an initiative to preserve and publish the documents of one of the world's most influential physicists, opened to the public in December as a free, searchable database known as the Digital Einstein Papers.

It's the realization of an endeavor that's been in the works since 1987, when the project published its first volume in print.

Diana Kormos-Buchwald, the project's director and general editor, estimates it will take 30 volumes, each published in English and Einstein's native German, to cover the span of Einstein's illustrious career. The digital edition will be unveiled 18 months after print publication of each volume, until all volumes are published. The next volume – 14 – will be published in February.

"Presses always want to sell books, but in this particular case, we believe that this is beyond selling books," Kormos-Buchwald, who is also a professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, told From The Grapevine. "It is a service to the scholarly community to make this as widely available as possible, in particular because we’re talking about a complicated bilingual edition."

Einstein giving a speech at Princeton University in 1950. Einstein giving a speech at Princeton University in 1950. (Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Called "the prime mover of the transformation of modern physics," Einstein cemented his legacy through his papers on the photoelectric effect and the theory of relativity. He bequeathed his entire literary estate to Hebrew University, an institution he helped establish in 1925. After Einstein's death in 1955, his executors went to work on organizing and preserving his writings, but geographic complications and ownership disputes delayed the process. Settling on a location, funding and management of the documents took the executors decades.

In the early 1980s, physics professor John Stachel took over the project. Between Stachel and Einstein's appointed executors, more than 40,000 items had been collected. Those items were then shipped to Hebrew University and became what is now known as the Albert Einstein Archives in Jerusalem.

The Albert Einstein ArchivesThe Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Photo: Dr. Roni Grosz)

Dr. Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives, said the digitization is giving Einstein the platform he deserves.

"Only a generation ago, an archive that kept to itself and made it hard to be accessed by interested parties was considered an important archive," Grosz told From The Grapevine.

"You had to get an appointment, you had to bring a letter of recommendation from a professor, and even then you would only be shown a few documents at a time, and of course you were not allowed to photograph the documents," Grosz continued. "Nowadays an archive that would comport itself this way would be pushed to the sidelines, almost ridiculed for its inability or unwillingness to provide electronic copies instantly."

Now, he said, openness is no longer a privilege – it's a responsibility.

"Princeton University Press has a long history of publishing books by and about Albert Einstein, including the incredible work found in 'The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein,'" said Peter Dougherty, director of the Princeton University Press. “We are delighted to make these texts openly available to a global audience of researchers, scientists, historians and students keen to learn more about Albert Einstein."

Since launching the digital edition in December, Kormos-Buchwald said the reception has been "extremely positive." The digitization so far includes Einstein's early works before he developed his famous theory of relativity. So stay tuned, she said – the best is yet to come.

"Einstein’s correspondence and activities increase dramatically after 1919 and 1920, when he becomes well-known, and from 1925 to the end of his life in 1955, he continues to publish intensively and to have extensive exchanges with scientists," she said. "The edition will probably take another 15 volumes to complete."


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein goes digital
Thousands of the influential scientist's papers are now available online.