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Sailor And Scientist: Albert Einstein Makes History On The East End

Originally Posted: December 27, 2010

Nicole A. Flotteron

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Albert Einstein sailing his boat, "Tinef." (being.publicradio.org)

Nassau Point - Known mostly for its picturesque bay front properties, Nassau Point, which is part of the hamlet of Cutchogue, is a secluded gem on the North Fork. What many may not know however is that history was made on Nassau Point in 1939, after scientist Albert Einstein signed a letter written to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This letter, which bears a Nassau Point return address, is credited by some with initiating the start the Manhattan Project; the project that led to the invention of the atomic bomb.

The cottage on Old Cove Road on Nassau Point that Einstein rented in 1939. (Jerry Cimisi)

An avid sailor, Einstein spent nearly every summer during the time he lived in the United States at a vacation home where he could be near the water. During the summers of 1937 to 1939, the eccentric German physicist selected quiet Nassau Point as his summer vacation residence. He rented a cottage on Old Cove Road (now known as West Cove Road) where he had access to Peconic Bay, well known for its pristine sailing conditions.

Residents in the area were quite familiar with the strange, straggly white-haired scientist, who often needed rescue during his sailing escapades. Though unable to swim, he regularly took out his small dinghy sailboat "Tinef," which was Yiddish for "worthless" or "junk," to sail, drift, and on occasion, even run aground, in the bay in front of his cottage.

A number of notable visitors came to see Einstein over the course of the three summers he spent on Nassau Point, including British physicist and author C.P. Snow, Academy Award winning actress Luise Rainer and her husband, playwright Clifford Odets.

During the summer of 1939, Einstein ventured into Rothman's Department Store in Southold, a family run store to this day. According to accounts by the Rothman family, Einstein came into the store looking for "sundials." Though they did not carry sundials, owner David Rothman offered Einstein one that he had in his own back yard. Einstein then pointed to his feet, laughing, and again said "sundials" in a thick German accent. What he meant was sandals, which the store had of course, and from there, a friendship between Einstein and Rothman was born.

Einstein and Rothman on Nassau Point in 1939. (Reginald Donahue and www.stonybrook.edu)

Einstein had a peculiar manner of dress, which generally consisted of shorts, a white undershirt, a rope belt, and the feminine sandals he purchased at Rothman's department store. Einstein and Rothman on several occasions met to play the violin together, and speak about a broad range of topics. On one such occasion, the subject of relativity arose, and Einstein offered to explain the concept.

Rothman had only a rudimentary level of education, and requested that Einstein explain without any use of mathematics. Einstein took out a sheet of paper and began drawing figures and writing numbers on it. Rothman reminded him of their deal in which no mathematics was to be used, in the explanation, to which Einstein replied, "But these are so trivial!"

Later that same summer, Einstein received a visit from two physicist friends of his: Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner. Concerned over the actions of the physics community in Nazi Germany after the discovery of nuclear fission, they came to speak to Einstein and ask for his help. Szilard and Wigner feared that the Germans were trying to develop the world's first nuclear weapon, and they requested that Einstein, the world's most famous and respected scientist, write a letter to the appropriate official warning of what the Germans were capable of.

Einstein on the beach on Nassau Point. (www.theblogofrecord.com)

Szilard drafted a letter on Einstein's behalf to President Roosevelt, which was signed by Einstein and sent on August 2, 1939. The return address on the header of the letter reads, "Albert Einstein, Old Grove Road, Nassau Point." In the letter, Einstein said, "The element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness, and if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration." He went on to speak directly about the creation of bombs stating, "This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs…A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory."

It is said that after receiving the letter, Roosevelt immediately put together a team of researchers to work on "The Manhattan Project," a project that would lead to the invention of the first atomic bomb, which would later be dropped on the Empire of Japan, ending World War II.

Einstein later stated that as a life long pacifist he regretted writing the letter after learning that Germany had not made the nuclear weapons progress that he and his colleagues feared, and condemned the bombing of Japan. Before his death he stated, "I made one great mistake in my life - when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them."

Nuclear fission, The Manhattan Project, and atomic bombs aside, Einstein had a love for the East End, and the summers he spent here. In the summer of 1940, Einstein rented a cottage on Saranac Lake. In order to ensure that he could continue sailing, Rothman arranged to have his boat, "Tinef" shipped there.

In a letter dated July 20, 1940, Einstein wrote to Rothman, "I was really touched when I received your kind gift. I feel happy indeed about your kindness and at the same time ashamed because I could not show my gratitude for all the care and connection with my boat. I am going sailing daily with my sister and I am homesick when I think of the beautiful musical evenings. With kind regards to you, your family, and the musical friends, yours sincerely, A. Einstein."

A copy of the letter signed to President Roosevelt by Albert Einstein in 1939, with a Nassau Point return address. (lanl.gov)

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Guest (barry rackner) from duluth, minnesota says::
the boat in the first snapshot above is Tummler, given to AE by friends for his 50th birthday in 1929, and sailed near his summer cottage in Caputh, until Hitler came to power in 1933 (AE was in on a visit to Cal Tech) and the boat was stolen from Einstein by the state and sold to the dentist Fiebig in 1934 by the Gestapo. Einstein immigrated during this visit after Hitler came to power, but inquired about Tummler - he obviously missed the boat. All documented in: http://www.einstein- website.de/z_biography/tuemmler-e.html
Aug 25, 2012 5:21 pm

Guest (Ron Aragon) from Merced, CA says::
Einstein's sailboat you have pictured is not Tinef. As a matter of fact, the sailboat you have pictured is not a small sailing dinghy at all, but a much larger, and very fine sailboat gift that was given to Einstein.
Sep 12, 2011 3:14 pm

Guest (MikeSoja) from Tennessee says::
That is not a picture of Tinef. That boat is Tümmler, the boat Einstein owned in Germany, and which he left there when he fled that country in 1933. The boat was eventually confiscated by the Third Reich.
Apr 21, 2011 8:28 am

Guest (Guest) from Southampton says::
What would E think of the East End today? "Tinef"? I hope not.
Jan 18, 2011 4:16 pm


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