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Einstein is mesmerized by a birthday gift of a kaleidoscope
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I was quite touched by the two well thought out gifts that you sent for my birthday via Bucky’s. I am especially fond of the kaleidoscope, to the point where [I] can’t help but look again and again at the changing star patterns.

Einstein, who generally disliked being the center of attention, was relatively uncomfortable celebrating his birthday. In 1944, in a New York Times interview, he asked, “What is there to celebrate? Birthdays are automatic things. Anyway, birthdays are for children.” He described his 75th birthday as “a natural disaster, a shower of paper full of flattery under which one almost drowned.” Despite that, Mrs. Damann clearly had a knack for giving perfect meaningful gifts.

ALBERT EINSTEIN. Autograph Note Signed, to Mrs. Damann, March 12, 1950. In German. 1 p., 8⅜ x 4½ in.

Inventory #25316.02       Price: $8,000

Complete Translation

                                    March 12, 50

Dear Mrs. Damann,

I was quite touched by the two well thought out gifts that you sent for my birthday via Bucky’s. I am especially fond of the kaleidoscope, to the point where [I] can’t help but look again and again at the changing star patterns.

My warmest thanks and regards and best wishes,

Yours, / A. Einstein


After studying the properties of light and polarization optics, Scottish scientist David Brewster (1781-1868) created the first kaleidoscope in 1816 by arranging mirrors and objects in a tube. He named his new invention using Greek words that mean beautiful form watcher. A poorly worded patent allowed others to copy his invention, which spread widely. Brewster also invented an improved stereoscope and was a pioneer in photography.

In the early 1870s, Prussian immigrant Charles G. Bush (1825-1900) began manufacturing kaleidoscopes in the United States. Bush used a basic mix of approximately thirty-five pieces, a third of which were liquid filled, so the liquid and air bubbles continued to move even after the case was at rest. By the mid-twentieth century, kaleidoscopes were mass-produced and widely distributed. American soldiers after World War II introduced them to children around the world.

Einstein was so enchanted by the kaleidoscope for which he thanked her in this letter that he wrote Mrs. Damann again on March 31, 1950.

Ruth Edith Dammann (b. 1901) was born in Berlin, Germany, into a Jewish family. In 1937 she immigrated to New York from Le Havre, France, aboard the S.S. Normandie. She was listed as a single house worker who spoke German and Yiddish. She apparently returned to Europe, and lived in Paris, France, for a time. In June 1941, she again immigrated to New York from Lisbon, Portugal, on the SS Mouzinho, but this time without a visa. She was listed as divorced with an occupation of “Artistic Flowers.” The board of special inquiry initially denied her entrance, but she appealed. In September 1941, she was admitted for six months, under Section 3(2) of the Immigration Act of 1924, “the Dept of State having waived passport and passport visa requirements.”

Einstein sent this letter to Dammann in care of Café Old Europe at 2182 Broadway in New York City. William Kanter, who had operated Café New York in Vienna before the paramilitary Sturmabteilung forced its closure in 1933, reopened Café Old Europe in November 1945. It was an “exile café” that became an “international social center,” especially for displaced Austrian and German Jews, with dining, dancing, and entertainment.

Gustav Peter Bucky (1880-1963) was a radiologist, physician, and inventor who was educated in Germany and Switzerland. He lived in the United States from 1923 to 1929, before returning to Germany as head of a radiology department in a hospital. He left Germany for political reasons in 1933, returning to America, where he established a medical practice in New York City. Bucky and Einstein became close friends. In 1935, they jointly filed a patent application for a camera that self-adjusted the amount of light admitted. He also treated Einstein and was present at Einstein’s deathbed in 1955.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was born on March 14 (now known as Pi Day), in the Kingdom of Wurttemberg in the German Empire to non-observant Ashkenazi Jewish parents. In 1894, his family moved to Italy. Einstein went to Switzerland to finish his secondary schooling, and graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zürich in 1900.

When his sister Maja Winteler-Einstein later described his childhood, she recalled, “He filled his leisure time by working on puzzles, doing fretsaw work, and erecting complicated structures with the well-known ‘Anker’ building set, but his favorite was building many-storied houses of cards.”[1]

In 1903, he married Mileva Marić (1875-1948), with whom he had two sons. In 1919, they divorced and he married his cousin Elsa Löwenthal.

In 1905, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Zürich and published his revolutionary paper on Special Relativity, including the mass–energy equivalence formula, E = mc2.

In 1915, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity introduced the idea that gravity can be explained as the warping of four-dimensional spacetime. Many physicists doubted this approach until 1919, when a group of British astronomers confirmed the theory by measuring the bending of starlight grazing the sun during a solar eclipse.

In 1922, the forgetful genius found himself in a hotel in Tokyo without money to tip a messenger who delivered the telegram informing Einstein that he had been awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the photoelectric effect. Instead, he gave the boy a tip in the form of a note that he predicted would one day be worth far more: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness. Albert Einstein.” That note was dubbed his “Theory of Happiness” when it sold at auction in October 2017 for $1,560,000.


Professionally removed from old board and conserved.

[1] “Beitrag für sein Lebensbild” in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. ed. John Stachel. Volume 1: The Early Years. 1879-1902. English translation supplement. (Princeton University Press, 1987) p. xix.

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