Christmas Eve 1937: A message of goodwill from Albert Einstein

27-12-2007

It was exactly seventy years ago this week, at 11 pm on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve in 1937, that Czechoslovak Radio attempted a fascinating radio experiment. A radio bridge was set up to bind three continents – reaching India in the east, and across the Atlantic to the United States in the west. The Czech writer, Karel Capek and the inventor of the arc-lamp, the 90-year old Frantisek Krizik, exchanged messages of goodwill for the coming year with Albert Einstein in Princeton and with the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal. The experiment was to show the binding power of radio, and the solidarity between people of goodwill at a time when the world was under a growing threat from dictatorship.

The announcer began: “Praha and all Czechoslovak stations calling the United States of America, Professor Albert Einstein of Princeton University. All ready in America?”

Storms above the Atlantic meant that they had some difficulty getting the signal across, but in the end, over the static, Frantisek Krizik did manage to read his message to Einstein, first in Czech, and then through a fellow professor in English.

“Professor Einstein, we are so far from each other and yet so near. It is science that has shortened all distances. During the ninety years of my life I have been the witness of the greatest advances of modern science. I saw its beginnings and I still remember those early days of Thomas Alva Edison. This entitles me to believe in further progress and in a happy future for humanity. Today I should like to tell you of my belief that people and nations will be brought closer and closer by means of science. Professor Einstein, with all my heart I must wish you all health and happiness for the really bright new year. We are sure that through your noble work you will continue to make great contributions to science and to the understanding of all nations. Dr Einstein, a happy New Year to you and peace and brotherhood to all people of goodwill!”

Einstein’s reply – in German - was completely lost in the static, and in the end had to be sent by telegraph. It was read by a radio announcer.

“We know”, he said, “that at in difficult circumstances Czechoslovakia is protecting and defending political freedoms and human rights, without which it is impossible for our spirit to flourish.” And he went on to send to Prague “the hopes and heartfelt wishes of all friends of truth, humanity and freedom.”

Karel Capek’s message to India was read first in Czech by Capek himself, then in English and Bengali by the well-known Czech professor Vincenc Lesny.

“Regardless of the great distance between our countries,” he said, “we stretch out our hands in brotherly fashion to you, the poet of wisdom.”

Rabindranath Tagore’s reply came by telegram, and again was read by an announcer.

“Friends in Czechoslovakia. In the terrible storm of hatred and violence raging over humanity, accept the goodwill of an old idealist who clings to his faith in the common destiny of the East and West and all people on the Earth.”

Technologically the radio bridge had not all gone smoothly, but the shared message of goodwill for the New Year, at a time when the clouds of world war were looming ever larger, was more than clear. Through the crackles I think it still speaks to us today.

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27-12-2007