Walking down the south side of Main Road in Southold brings you past Einstein Square, a pleasant seating area next to Southold General. There’s a statue and plaque commemorating Einstein as well as a large, painted mural of Einstein with local Southold business owner David Rothman on the neighboring building, the former site of Rothman’s Department Store.
Einstein? In Southold?
Well, yes. During the summers of 1938 and 1939, Einstein traveled to the North Fork to do what so many of us like to do in summertime: leave the hustle and bustle behind and enjoy the peace and quiet of the idyllic beaches and waters of the Peconic Bay. He rented a small beach house on Old Cove Road in Nassau Point (now known as West Cove Road) for himself, his sister Maja, his step-daughter Margot, his son Hans, and his secretary Helen Dukas. At least part of each day, Einstein worked out his theories and thoughts on a blackboard in the cottage’s tiny living room. At the time, Einstein was searching for the “unified field theory” — a single formula to explain the relationship between gravity and electromagnetism. To date, this theory has never been proven.
As for the rest of his days on the North Fork, Einstein loved to sail and to play the violin. He kept his 15-foot sailboat in Horseshoe Cove. The boat was called “Tineff” – which means worthless in Yiddish. Reportedly, Einstein was no sailor — local lore is rife with stories of Southold residents having to rescue Einstein after tipping over in his boat. Another fun fact: Einstein couldn’t swim.
In 1939, Einstein befriended David Rothman, the owner of Rothman’s Department Store on Main Street in Southold. As the story goes, Einstein went into Rothman’s looking for “sundials” — it took a minute for Rothman to understand that his new customer, in thickly-accented English, was asking for sandals. Einstein purchased the sandals — in a ladies’ size 11 for $1.35 — which became an integral part of his North Fork summer uniform of shorts held up with a piece of rope and a white sport shirt. While at the store that day, Einstein and Rothman spoke of their mutual love of classical music. Rothman shared that he and his friends meet weekly to play Mozart and Beethoven in string quartet; Einstein, a trained violinist, joined the group. Rothman arranged many musical evenings at his Southold home where Einstein and a few friends would play.
During that summer, World War II was not yet on the American doorstep and life still seemed carefree. However, a group of physicists led by exiled Hungarians Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, were gravely concerned about German advances in splitting the atom. Alarmed that the Germans may develop an atomic weapon in advance of the Americans, the Hungarian scientists convinced Einstein to write a letter outlining these concerns to President Franklin Roosevelt. Einstein wrote
this famed letter to FDR on August 2, 1939, warning of new developments in nuclear physics which could lead to the development of powerful weapons and hinted that the Germans might be working on an atomic bomb. This letter, which Einstein would later regret writing, is widely credited as the underlying cause of the Manhattan Project, which was the U.S. government effort to build the first atomic weapon to be used in armed conflict. A copy of this letter can be viewed at the Southold Historical Society, as well as a letter Einstein sent to David Rothman claiming that 1939 was his “happiest summer ever,” and calling the local bay “the most beautiful sailing ground I ever experienced.”
Einstein never again returned to summer on the North Fork — so Rothman sent him a new pair of “sundials” every year.