Famous scientists are often viewed only in the context of their work. But personal artifacts can show a broader picture of these individuals’ personalities, from their sense of humor to their political beliefs. Now, reports Matthew Taub for Atlas Obscura, letters, patents and assorted objects featured in Christie’s “Eureka! Scientific Breakthroughs of the 20th Century” sale are set to reveal the lesser-known sides of some of history’s most prominent scientists.
The 58 auction lots include a rare World War II Enigma machine, patents by Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, a Nobel prize medal, and a plastic figurine of Stephen Hawking’s “Simpsons” character. Noticeably absent are any artifacts representing women’s contributions to science. The online auction—the sixth in a series of sales highlighting “autograph material, printed books, photographs and association objects from the most brilliant scientific minds of the modern age,” according to a statement—opened June 24 and will conclude on July 16.
One of the most recognizable names appearing in the auction is that of Albert Einstein, who developed the theory of relativity and won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the photoelectric effect. A 1932 letter from Einstein to his son Eduard seeks to comfort the young man, who was then undergoing treatment for schizophrenia.
In the note, Einstein jokes that his son shouldn’t worry about the contents of his father’s will—“I will never mention them again,” he writes—and mentions a friend who emerged from treatment for depression “in cheerful spirits and the best of health.”
Another Einstein missive offers insights on the physicist’s experience of fame.
“I have to admit to you frankly,” he says in the 1929 letter to Herman Bernstein, who hosted the scientist’s 50th birthday party at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, “that … I do not consider such an extreme cult of personality to be a good thing.”
Another celebrity of his time, Edison, is represented in the auction by a collection of items tracking his progress on the design of the lightbulb. The papers record experiments conducted between 1880 and 1886, at which point the inventor was refining his signature incandescent bulb.
The auction also offers up a collection of 50 original patents likely sent directly from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to Tesla or his lawyers. These documents record the invention of radio (“disputed by Marconi,” according to Christie’s), the Tesla coil, alternating current motors and remote-controlled devices, among others.
“[Tesla] was an inventor, an engineer, a scientist and an oddball,” writes author Samantha Hunt in the introduction to 2011 book Nikola Tesla: My Inventions and Other Writings. “More than any one man, Nikola Tesla is responsible for the twentieth century.”
Unconnected to any one scientist (but perhaps most widely associated with mathematician Alan Turing) is an M4 Enigma machine. During World War II, the German military used these devices to send encrypted messages. A lower-encryption model, the M3, used three rotors to encrypt the message; the M4 used four and required completely new computation—led by Turing and electrical engineer Joseph Desch—to decode.
Per Christie’s, fewer than 100 M4 Enigma machines survived the war. Both the M3 and M4 models are rare, as the German military destroyed the machines rather than let them be captured by Allied forces. After the war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered remaining machines destroyed to protect his codebreakers’ methods. In 2017, reported Jason Daley for Smithsonian magazine, a mathematician purchased an Enigma machine at a flea market for $114, then proceeded to resell it at auction for $51,620.
A first edition copy of James Watson and Francis Crick’s paper detailing the molecular structure of DNA is also included in the sale. At the very end of the paper, the pair write that they “have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London.”
This brief acknowledgement fails to properly credit Rosalind Franklin’s Photograph 51, which was key to Watson and Crick’s realization that the genetic material looks like a twisted ladder called a double helix. As King’s College archivist Geoff Browell told BBC News’ Fergus Walsh in 2012, Photograph 51 is “arguably the most important photo ever taken.”
More recent artifacts include a 2010 Nobel Prize granted to Robert Edwards for his development of in vitro fertilization and several objects from Hawking’s estate, including his doctoral hood and the original artwork for a 1988 comic strip.
“Say, dude, if you hadn’t mistakenly squared that fourth integer, you would’ve realized that black holes could never emit radiation,” fictional child genius Oliver Wendell Jones tells Hawking in the comic.
Scribbled above the artwork is a message from its author: “For Stephen Hawking, who is possibly somewhat smarter than Gomer Pyle. Best, Berke Breathed.”