In the three months that had elapsed since Albert materialized unannounced at his parents’ home, he had settled into a new and comfortable routine. Uncle Jakob had engaged the seventeen-year-old in lending a hand in their electric lighting business, and his father, Hermann, the salesman for the family business, was happy to have him back in the fold.
One day when Albert collected the mail as he generally did, he spotted a letter addressed to him. Seeing that it was from his uncle Caesar Koch, a merchant in Belgium, his pulse quickened. He excitedly tore the envelope open and, as he read, his eyes widened. At the end of the letter, he let out a squeal of joy and raced outside to the company workshop behind the house.
“Father, Uncle Jakob!” shouted Albert, waving the letter in the air.
Jakob and Hermann reluctantly looked up from amid the blizzard of crumpled papers strewn around them. They were deep into trying to solve an electrical installation problem.
Albert slowed, and a frown replaced the happy grin he had been sporting. “What’s wrong?”
Jakob shook his head, his face pinched with tension. “We have an installation of one hundred lights at a factory. It is the most complicated job we have ever had, and I just can’t solve the math. We have been at it since yesterday.”
Albert stuffed the letter in his shirt pocket. His news could wait. He flopped down on a bench next to his uncle. “Let me see.”
Jakob handed his nephew the papers with a sigh. He closed his eyes and massaged his head. “I have such a headache.”
“Give me a few minutes alone with this puzzle,” Albert said as he turned his attention to the task. Since he had been working with his uncle, his knowledge of electricity had increased, and he had found the study of magnetism fascinating.
His father and uncle welcomed the break. “You can find us in the house when you’ve got it figured out,” Hermann said with a wry grin. He knew the seventeen-year-old didn’t have the experience to figure out the solution—if there was one—but he and Jakob weren’t getting anywhere, and the pause might clear their heads.
As the two men left, Albert reviewed the specifications of the job, then picked up a pencil from the table and withdrew his compass from his pants pocket, setting it alongside the papers. He took a breath and prepared to get started on the math, but the sparkling jewels on top of the brass direction finder captured his attention. With the details of the problem in mind, he let himself relax, gazing absently at the compass. Minutes passed, then Albert began writing feverishly.
Albert was beaming as he walked into the kitchen. His father and uncle looked up from the table where they sat. “Solved it already?” his uncle said with a hint of joking sarcasm.
“Actually, I think I did,” Albert replied, holding out some papers.
Skeptical, Jakob snatched the papers from Albert’s hand. He studied what the boy had written and, slowly, his frown was replaced by a relieved if almost unbelieving smile.
As Albert’s father looked over Jakob’s shoulder, he read and nodded, read some more and nodded some more. Then he looked at his son. “How did you do this, Albert? We’ve been at it for nearly two days and come up with nothing.”
Albert grinned and said, “I have been experimenting. I have new ideas based on Voile’s advanced theory of physics. As I was thinking about your problem, some ideas came to me. I think the suggestions I have proposed will work.”
Uncle Jakob looked at the papers again and nodded. “I believe they will. Albert, I don’t know what to say.”
Albert’s father stood and hugged his son. “I... I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of you, Albert.” Albert hugged his father back and the letter he had received earlier crinkled in his pocket.
“What’s tha... oh, I remember, you had something to tell us.”
Albert pulled out the now wrinkled letter from his pocket. “I do!” As he unfolded the piece of paper Albert said, “You know I have been studying on my own to hopefully qualify to attend the Zurich Polytechnic.” The two men nodded. “I sent Uncle Koch an essay, ‘The Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field.’ He knew some people in the administration at the college and got them to look at it.”
“I take it they approved of your essay?” Jakob asked.
“Better,” Albert said, his grin now threatening to split his face. “I have been invited to take the entrance exam in October!”
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