Laub, Jakob Johann

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(b. Rzeszόw, Galicia, Austria-Hungary, 7 February 1882; d. Fribourg, Switzerland, 22 April 1962)


Laub was the son of the manager of an estate near the German border. His turbulent and polyfaceted career is reflected in uncertainties surrounding his origins and identity. At birth he was Jakub; at death, Jacobo-Juan; he referred to his father as Adolf rather than by his probable name, Abraham; his mother’s maiden name, Anna Schenborn, may or may not be a corrupt spelling. Beginning with his Argentine period, Laub let it be known that he was born in Jägerndorf, Austria. In 1911 he married Ruth Wendt, daughter of a Hamburg professor. They had one daughter and were divorced sometime after 1928. Wendt later became an organizer of migrant farm workers in California.1

Laub attended gymnasium in Rzeszόw. In 1902, after studying briefly at the universities of Cracow and Vienna, he entered the University of Göttingen as a student of mathematics and physics. There, taking courses and seminars with David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski, he became interested in the electron theory. He turned to experiment, and in 1905 he decided to work with Wilhelm Wien at Würzburg. Laub’s doctoral dissertation (1907) concerned secondary cathode-ray emission. At his oral defense (1906), he introduced Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which Wien had recommended to him in September 1905. For the next several years Laub remained at Würzburg and concentrated on extending Einstein’s ideas.

Although by early 1908 Einstein was attracting notice from distinguished physicists, he had not yet received a university appointment. It was an unusual step, then, when in February 1908 Laub wrote to Einstein to ask if he could visit Bern to study relativity with him. Laub became Einstein’s first scientific collaborator. Together they published articles criticizing Minkowski’s notion of electromagnetic force and suggesting an experiment to decide between Einstein’s special relativity and Hendrik Lorentz’s electron theory.

In 1909, At Einstein’s urging, Laub accepted a post as assistant to Philipp Lenard at Heidelberg. Lenard was jealous of Einstein’s revolutionary interpretation of the photoelectric effect. (He had won a Nobel Prize in 1905, in part for his work on that effect, just as Einstein would win one in 1921, in part for his work on it.) Lenard set Laub to measure the density of the electromagnetic ether, a peculiar project hatched by Lenard and Vilhelm Bjerknes on which Laub expended little effort, In 1910 Laub published a masterly survey of the experimental evidence for relativity. the appearance of which displeased Lenard. Late in that year Laub began looking for employment outside Germany. He declined an assistant professorship at the University of Illinois to assume a chair of geophysics and theoretical physics at the University of La Plata in Argentina.

Laub’s academic career in Argentina was relatively short. He left La Plata for a chair in physics at the Instituto Nacional del Profesorado Secundario, in nearby Buenos Aires, in 1914, after running afoul of the American director of the La Plata observatory, William Joseph Hussey. Laub taught in Buenos Aires for the rest of the decade. In 1920 he joined the Argentine diplomatic corps, a position made possible by his having become an Argentine citizen in 1915.

Except for furloughs in Argentina during the years 1928–1930 and 1939–1947, Laub spent most of the rest of his life in Europe. In the 1920’s and 1930’s he was stationed at consulates in Munich, Breslau, Hamburg, and Warsaw. In the early 1930’s when the Argentine coup d’état by José F. Uriburu seems to have deprived him of a salary for several years, Laub carried out fundamental research on highfrequency radiotelephone transmission for the Reichspost in Breslau and for the Berlin firm of C. Lorenz.2 Beginning in 1947, after he retired, Laub was a researcher in the Physics Institute at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He returned to an old interest, atmospheric electricity and radiation, which he pursued in collaboration with Friedrich Dessauer3 His health declined through the 1950’s parallel with the fall in the value of the Argentine peso. By 1960 he was destitute. To raise cash he sold his unique scientific correspondence.

Jakob Laub, the close collaborator or friend of four Nobel laureates and a host of scientist luminaries in half a dozen countries, died in poverty and obscurity.


1. Biographical data from the Lebenslauf of Laub’s 1907 doctoral dissertation; courtesy of Eduardo L. Ortiz, Imperial College. London; and from correspondence and an interview with the late Ruth Wendt. The Jagerndorf origin appears in Laub’s official file at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Buenos Aires.

2. F. Budischin, “Entwicklung und Ausbau des hochfrequenten Drahtfunks in Deutschland,” in Fernmeldetechnische Zeitschrift. 1 (1948), 201–202, where, however, the experiments are inaccurately credited to “Prof. W. Laub.”

3. Jakob Laub, “Ueber Schwankungen atmosphärischer Ionen und ihre biologische Wirkung,” in Bulletin der Schweizerischen Akademie der medizinischen Wissenschaften, 16 (1960), 292– 304, where Laub chronicles his forty-year interest in related questions.


I. Original Works. Laub’s correspondence and interaction with Einstein figure in Carl Seelig’s Albert Einstein: Ein dokumentarische Biographic (Zurich, 1954); some letters that Laub auctioned about 1960 are extracted in the catalogs of the auctioneer Gerd Rosen of Berlin (available in an annex of the New York Public Library). Most of Laub’s German publications from the early years are in vol. V of Poggendorff; there is no systematic record of his Spanish-language publications. In his last years, Laub claimed to have patent rights.

Most of Laub’s extant correspondence with Einstein may be found (in original or in facsimile)in the Einstein papers (Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Boston University). The Smithsonian Institution Archives contain correspondence between Laub and Paul Hertz, as well as a number of letters from the latter part of Laub’s career. Laub’s activity at Heidelberg is recounted in correspondence between Vilhelm Bjerknes and Philipp Lenard, located at the University of Oslo. Correspondence between Laub and Emil Bose is preserved in the Fundación Walter B. L. Bose, Buenos Aires. Correspondence between Laub and Wilhelm Wien is at the Deutsches Museum, Munich.

II. Secondary Literature. Lewis Pyenson, “Laub, Jakob,” in Neue deutsche Biographie, V., 688–689, Cul tural Imperialism and Exact Sciences: German Expansion Overseas, 1990–1930 (New York and Bern, 1985), 163– 170 199–202, 227–228, The Young Einstein: The Advent of Relativity (Bristol and Boston, 1985), esp. 215–246, and “Silver Horizon: A Note on the Later Career of the Physicist-Diplomat Jakob Laub,” in Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas, 25 (1988). 757–766.

Lewis Pyenson