The Hidden Oktoberfest, part one … Einstein’s General Theory of Conviviality

The world’s biggest Volksfest kicks off in Munich this weekend. The beer barrels are ready to roll, the flirty dirndls are primed for action, and a hundred thousand hangovers are coming this way like a weather front. Throughout the festival, we’ll be posting a series of blogs on the lesser known facts and stories behind Oktoberfest …

Number One: Albert Einstein installed the first electric lights at Oktoberfest.

"O'zapft is!"

“O’zapft is!”

No, seriously. This is true. Well maybe. In researching this, I’ve read three different articles that give three different versions of the story involving the young Albert hanging lights in the tents, one of which claims that he did so in 1880. Obviously the father of modern science could work wonders, but nevertheless that was an impressive feat for a one year old.

The most reliable version seems to be that the 17 year Einstein helped electrify the Schottenhamel tent in 1896. Living in Munich’s Lindwurmstrasse (today’s number 127), he was working as an assistant for the electrical firm established by his father and uncle, “J. Einstein & Cie”. The firm was contracted to bring electric light to an Oktoberfest tent for the first time, and young Albert had the onerous task of screwing in the bulbs (Oktoberfest tents are big).

What is even less well known is that Einstein’s famous equation, “e=mc²“, does not, as is commonly believed, mean that the energy (“e”) of matter is equal to the mass (“m”) of that matter times the speed of light (“c”) squared. This founding statement of modern theoretical physics was the result of a translation error. He was actually referring not to “mass” but “Maß“, the name given to the litre glasses of beer served at Oktoberfest.

Young Albert was constantly slacking off the job in order to sneak another beer from the waitresses, and noted that his energy levels for climbing the ladders, relative to the number of Maß litres he had consumed, completely squared up the speed with which he was able to screw in the light bulbs. Having a fondness for equations, he wrote this down in order to impress the waitresses, and it was later found among his papers and misunderstood. The result was that time and space got confused and everything went quantum.

Which can happen quite a lot after an evening in Oktoberfest.


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