Local History and Genealogy

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Albert Einstein and Charles Fischer: “Solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin”

In December 1930, Albert Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, set sail for the US aboard the cruise ship SS Belgenland. This would be Einstein’s second trip to the United States, and the first of three trips he would make during the early 1930s. Einstein was again aboard the Belgenland in 1933 when they received word that Adolph Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and that Einstein himself had become a target of assassination by the Nazis. Einstein left the ship that year in Belgium, vowing never to return to Germany. After emigrating to the United States, Albert Einstein became a US citizen in October 1940, seventy years ago this month.

“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” 
—Albert Einstein, in an interview on the SS Belgenland, December 1930.

During the 1930-31 cruise aboard the SS Belgenland, Einstein became friends with the shipboard bandleader, Kalamazoo’s own Charles Fischer. The two, it seems, shared at least one common interest, the violin. On occasion, Einstein would borrow Fischer’s violin and join the orchestra for a few numbers.


Albert Einstein, probably aboard SS Belgenland, January 1931.

The Kalamazoo Public Library has in its collection an interesting souvenir of the occasion – a single page from what was apparently a souvenir scrapbook, given to the library by Charles Fischer’s widow after his death in 1948. On one side of the cardboard page is a photograph of Charles Fischer, sharing a conversation with Albert Einstein about his violin. The same photo was later featured in a Kalamazoo Gazette article about Fischer and his famous orchestras.

What is this?

On the other side of the page is an undated, nondescript paper napkin with what appears to be handwritten scribblings, perhaps notes written by Einstein himself. Were Einstein and Fischer (forgive the obvious nod to Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam) “solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin?” Was this something new that Einstein was working on? Or was he simply sharing ideas to his newfound friend??


Local History Room photo, uncataloged. (View the full size image in Kalamazoo Public Library’s Flickr photostream.)

And so, the appeal goes out to the scientific community… What might these scribbles mean? Are they indeed the writings of Albert Einstein as they appear to be?? We’d love to hear your comments. Add a comment below or contact the Local History Room.


Albert Einstein and Charles Fischer

Local History Detective Work

The Southwest Michigan Postcard Club held its fall show and sale this past weekend, an event which usually leads to some interesting historical finds. This time around, I went with one specific purpose in mind—to locate images of Kalamazoo’s early musicians. Photo postcards of this nature are often difficult to locate, and this hunt proved to be no exception… until one card caught my eye—a nondescript photo of an orchestra, taken by a known local photographer (Austin) and postmarked 9 March 1908 in Kalamazoo. Information on the back of the card stated “they” would be performing in Ionia on the 17th of March, and was signed F. O. Pinkham. (Pinkham was also identified as “lower row, 2nd from right” in the photo.) But the exact identity of the orchestra remained a mystery.


After doing some speedy detective work, we were able to determine that the photo was of the Kalamazoo College Mandolin Orchestra taken about 1908. Formed in 1907, the orchestra was the first to debut R. F. Holden’s newly penned composition, Kazoo, which was to become the ‘K’ Alma Mater. In March 1908, the orchestra made a successful concert tour of Southern Lower Michigan, with stops in several towns, including Grand Rapids, and on the 17th of March, Ionia. A featured performer with the orchestra was a tenor singer named Fred Oliver Pinkham, further confirming the identity of the orchestra pictured on the card.

Learn more about Kalamazoo’s early musicians in KPL’s collection of Local History essays. And be your own detective. Contact the Local History Room for help in identifying some of your own photographs. You might be surprised at what you’ll find!


Gibson mandolin