Einstein was born in Ulm, in southern Germany, in 1879, but grew up in Munich. Little in his early life suggested the greatness to come. Famously he didn’t learn to speak until he was three. In the 1890s, his father’s electrical business failing, the family moved to Milan, but Albert, by now a teenager, went to Switzerland to continue his education—though he failed his college entrance exams on the first try. In 1896 he gave up his German citizenship to avoid military conscription and entered the Zurich Polytechnic Institute on a four-year course designed to churn out high school science teachers. He was a bright but not outstanding student.
In 1900 he graduated and within a few months was beginning to contribute papers to Annalen der Physik. His very first paper, on the physics of fluids in drinking straws (of all things), appeared in the same issue as Planck’s quantum theory. From 1902 to 1904 he produced a series of papers on statistical mechanics only to discover that the quietly productive J. Willard Gibbs in Connecticut had done that work as well, in his Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics of 1901.