Fall 2006

Feet of Genius

Einstein’s cobbler complex

Christopher Turner


On a Monday morning in the fall of 1952, Peter Hulit left his Princeton shoe store and walked the short distance to Albert Einstein’s home at 112 Mercer Street. Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, had asked Hulit to make an emergency house call because Einstein was having a problem with sore feet. “This magnificent guy came down the stairs,” Hulit recalls, “smoking his pipe, and he whipped this folded piece of paper out of his pocket and said, ‘Zis is ze problem, Mr. Hulit.’”

When I visited Hulit, now 83, in his apartment on the outskirts of Princeton, he showed me the crumpled page, which he had asked the physicist to sign an­d date as a souvenir of their encounter. On it was Einstein’s quick sketch illustrating his foot problem and his design for a more comfortable shoe. Einstein wrote “representation of weight?” in an almost illegible hand above two doodles of his right foot. One footprint is labeled “bad” and shows how his weight is concentrated on his big toe and the outer edge of his foot, causing him pain. Another drawing, labeled “good,” shows Einstein’s solution: a shoe that allows a generous space around the foot so that the pressure could be more evenly distributed. Underneath this blueprint for his perfect shoe, Einstein has given a back elevation view—a leg, clad in a pair of shakily drawn trousers, shown resting snugly in an inelegant bowl of footwear.

During the early 1920s, Einstein and the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd designed refrigerators, filing over forty-five patents for a design that never made it off the assembly line. Did Einstein’s sketch represent his foray into shoe design?

Einstein led Hulit into his den, where he sat in an ornate, high-backed winged chair and offered up his feet. He was legendary for going sockless, and this occasion was no exception (you can still buy an odor-eating spray called “Albert Einstein—No More Smelly Shoes!”). Hulit found himself on his knees before Einstein, as if washing the feet of the great genius. “When you touched his feet,” Hulit recalls, “they were tender like a child’s, that skin texture; they were soft and easy.” It didn’t take a genius to diagnose the problem, however: “What really happened is that he had gained some weight in his older age and his feet changed size.”

Einstein was an outspoken pacifist, and he’d managed to avoid Swiss military service because of the very same flat and sweaty feet that were still troubling him. In July 1939, Szilárd had visited Einstein at his summer retreat on Long Island—not to design new household appliances, but to present Einstein with a moral dilemma that would force him to reconsider his commitment to non-violence. He told Einstein that scientists in Berlin were stockpiling uranium and experimenting with nuclear chain reactions that would enable them to create “extremely powerful bombs,” and he urged the scientist to write to President Roosevelt to encourage him to enter this deadly arms race. Einstein described his subsequent letter to Roosevelt, which initiated the Manhattan Project, as the “one great mistake in my life.”

That summer, Einstein went to the Rothman’s Department Store in Southold, Long Island, to buy some footwear: “Einstein came in and asked, did we sell sundials?” remembers the current owner, Robert Rothman, who was twelve at the time. “My father took him out to the backyard and showed him sundials. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, no. Sundials,’ and pointed to his feet.”

Six years later, when Einstein heard that President Truman had ordered bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—causing the deaths of over 210,000 people—he is purported to have said, “If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.” When Hulit received news of the atomic explosion he was serving as a corporal in the army, on his way to Burma after a long tour of duty in Europe. His boat was immediately diverted back to America. “We thought it was a great thing,” Hulit says of the bomb. “There was no remorse … remorse comes later.” After the war, he went to work in his father’s shoe store in Princeton.

For Einstein, cobbling was a fantasy alternative job, something earthy and grounded, at the furthest extreme from his cerebral world of abstract equations. He referred to his years working for the Swiss patent office (1902–1909) as his “cobbler’s trade”—it was undemanding work that gave him the thinking space to hatch the world-shattering ideas that he produced in his “Annus Mirabilis Papers” of 1905, which contained among other things the theory of relativity. He regretted leaving this position to take a job at the University of Berlin, where he felt that the constant pressure to produce new work led to “the temptation of superficial analysis.”

In 1924, Einstein wrote of his objection to the Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s idea of quantum mechanics, the paradoxes of which he never fully accepted: “I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming house, than a physicist.” Perhaps he had Bohr in mind when he repeated this sentiment after the atomic bomb was dropped. By the 1940s, Bohr was working with Szilárd on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos under Robert Oppenheimer. In 1947, Oppenheimer became the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; he too visited Hulit’s store to be fitted for shoes.

“‘Don’t do what I’ve done,” Einstein advised nuclear physicist Ernest J. Sternglass when he was contemplating going back to graduate school. “They will try to crush every bit of originality out of you. … Always have a cobbler’s job. Always have a job where you can get up in the morning, face yourself, that you’re doing something useful for humanity. Because nobody can be a genius every day.”

Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet and is currently writing a book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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