Hermann Minkowski, a German mathematician, was born June 22, 1864. Minkowski believed that geometry was under-appreciated as a tool for understanding the world. After Einstein, in 1905, had argued that time is not some absolute magnitude but depends on the reference frame in which it is being measured, Minkowski jumped into the fray and proposed a four-dimensional geometry that he called “space-time,” with three space coordinates and one time coordinate. We might think of time and distance as radically different entities, but geometrically they are identical, Minkowski maintained. Moreover, time intervals might differ for different observers, and distance as well, but measurements in space-time would be invariant in his geometry, which he had developed by 1908. Einstein was highly skeptical at first of Minkowski’s claims for the priority of geometry, but as Einstein tried to get a handle on gravitation in his theory of general relativity (1916), he found the notion of space-time to be at first useful, and in the end essential, as he ultimately described gravity as a curvature of space-time.

Minkowski, unfortunately, did not live to see the triumph of his space-time concept, for he died in 1909 of appendicitis, just after giving an important address, “Raum und Zeit” (“Space and Time”) to a national meeting of German scientists. He was only 43. After the shock of his death, his colleagues published a special offprint of his address, adding a handsome photo-gravure portrait of Minkowski. We have a copy of this beautiful publication, lovingly inserted by an early owner into a custom-made folding marbled-paper slipcase, from which the images above were taken.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.