ON THIS DAY: December 28, 1934, Albert Einstein lectured at Carnegie Tech

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Dr. Albert Einstein delivered his first major speech in the United States at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) on Dec. 28, 1934. The world-renowned physicist’s lecture was the highlight of the four-day American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

Einstein’s lecture on atomic theory and special relativity was held in the Kresge Theatre (known as the “Little Theaters” at that time), and was part of the Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectures for the American Mathematical Society.

The lecture, titled “An Elementary Proof of the Theorem Concerning the Equivalence of Mass and Energy,” attracted over a thousand people to the theater, which was only designed to hold 400. When the curtain rose on a grinning Einstein with his wild graying hair, the audience chuckled and applauded.

Einstein walked the audience through his theory – the first time he spoke English at a lecture – explaining how he had simplified the complicated theory down to a now-famous equation: E = mc². As he derived his theory on two small and badly-lit portable blackboards, the only known photograph of him with a variant of his famous equation was taken.

According to newspaper accounts of the hour long lecture, Einstein’s English was quite good, but he did have to solicit help from the audience at points to find the right words. He was relaxed and soft-spoken, smiling frequently under his twitching mustache, but the mathematical hieroglyphics on the chalkboards were indiscernible to all but those in the front rows.

At press conference held in an Oakland home, Einstein entertained questions from the comfort of a deep armchair by the fireplace. A reporter asked whether his equation could be used to make energy, and Einstein, reflecting the common belief at that time, stated that he did not believe that power could be unlocked. “I am not a prophet in anything. Not in science either,” said Einstein. “But I feel absolutely sure – well, nearly sure – that it will not be possible to convert matter into energy for practical purposes.”

Fission of the uranium nucleus was discovered four years later in Berlin, Germany, which in turn instigated a rush to weaponize the discovery, ultimately achieved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan Project in 1945.