Today in 1879, the birthday of Albert Einstein, one of the most famous scientific minds of all time, and maybe the only one who both developed the theory of relativity and co-designed a unique kind of refrigerator.

Einstein’s partner in the project was his fellow physics genius and former student Leo Szilard, who would later help create the first sustained nuclear chain reaction.

But before that, back in the 1920s, he and Einstein were trying to solve a much more day-to-day problem.

Households had started to move away from old-school iceboxes and toward mechanical refrigerators.

But fridges in those days used very dangerous gases in the cooling process.

The gases were incredibly toxic to the people in the house if the seal on the compressor broke, which they sometimes did.

Einstein and Szilard thought they could come up with a safer design; they called their version “the people’s fridge.”

It didn’t use any of the dangerous chemicals in the standard fridges, it didn’t require electricity and it didn’t have a compressor.

In fact, it didn’t have any moving parts.

Instead, their system essentially cooled its chemicals by separating out hot and cold through natural gas.

As WIRED put it, “you could call the Einstein-Szilard refrigerator an engine for freezing water by fire.”

So why didn’t “the people’s fridge” become the fridge that people used?

Well, by the time the scientists had patented their system and started shopping it around to manufacturers, the Great Depression had hit.

Big companies were cutting back, especially on research.

Another big reason: the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, which eventually led both scientists to leave Germany.

More practically, the refrigerator industry found a way to use different materials as refrigerants.

That meant they could stick with the refrigerator design they already knew instead of starting over with a new one.

And a long with all that, there was one other reason: some of the people who heard about the invention couldn’t believe who had invented it.

An American patent attorney wrote back, “Albert Einstein is listed in the Standard Dictionary under the word ‘Einstein’ as an adjective denoting a theory of relativity.”

Why, he essentially asked, would that guy invent a refrigerator?

Part of me wants this story to be made into the prequel for the Oppenheimer movie

Back in 1936, Einstein got an invitation to put a letter in a time capsule that would be opened in a thousand years. His letter, in full:

“Dear Posterity,
If you have not become more just, more peaceful, and generally more rational than we are (or were) — why then, the Devil take you.”

What more needs to be said?

Einstein’s Little-Known Passion Project? A Refrigerator (WIRED)

Missive (Futility Closet)

It would be an Einstein-level genius move to back our show on Patreon

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Flickr/Creative Commons