100 years ago this week, Einstein needed a cheap place to crash in Europe. You’ll never guess who’s house he stayed at.

How’s this for a Throwback Thursday story? Exactly a century ago – on July 17, 1919 – Albert Einstein went couch surfing. In case you’re not familiar with the concept of couch surfing, this brief video should bring you up to speed.

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Our story takes place in 1919 when Einstein was spending the summer months in Switzerland. Elsa, his second wife, remained at their home in Berlin.


The building in Berlin where the Einsteins lived. The 'X' marks the apartment of Einstein's in-laws. A straight line is drawn to the tower apartment, where Einstein and his wife lived.

The building in Berlin where the Einsteins lived. The ‘X’ marks the apartment of Einstein’s in-laws. A straight line is drawn to the tower apartment, where Einstein and his wife lived. (Photo: Albert Einstein Archives
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Hebrew University)

Times were tough that year as the German mark was not as strong as the Swiss franc. Making matters worse, Einstein was being paid in German currency for his salary as the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. At this same moment, Einstein’s mother was in poor health with a terminal illness. The expense of her treatment in a private clinic put a strain on the Einstein family resources.

So Einstein came up with a plan. During part of his stay in Switzerland, the world’s favorite genius took to couch surfing in order to save money. But here’s where it gets really interesting. He ended up sleeping on the couch at his ex’s place. It was more than just a money-saving measure. Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, had bore him two sons. Staying at her house allowed Einstein to be close to his eldest son, Hans Albert, who stayed home alone while his mother and younger brother were out of town.

A document unearthed at the Albert Einstein Archives on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem shines a light on this intriguing chapter in the physicist’s life. Einstein sent a postcard to his second wife, Elsa, and wrote cheekily: “Camping in the lioness’s den is proving very worthwhile. And there is no fear of any incident happening.” He concluded his letter with: “What do you say to my letter-writing diligence? One shouldn’t praise a trip before it’s over, but I really am quite proud of myself.”

The postcard in its original German can be seen below, while a complete translation can be found here.


The postcard Einstein wrote to his wife Elsa on July 17, 1919.

The postcard Einstein wrote to his wife Elsa on July 17, 1919. (Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama / Albert Einstein Archives
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Hebrew University)

The year 1919 turned out to be a propitious one for Einstein. It started with him being a relative unknown, but an eclipse on May 29, 1919, helped prove his theory of relativity. Einstein became an overnight sensation, recognized wherever he went. And yet, it seems, even celebrities need to sleep on couches every once in a while. “If this humility could be imparted to everybody,” Einstein once said, “the world of human endeavors would become more appealing.”

Why Albert Einstein slept in his ex-wife Mileva’s den during a visit to Switzerland in the summer of 1919.

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