Optical manufacturer Carl Zeiss was born in Weimar, Germany on September 11, 1816. Little is known about his family background or his childhood beyond that he attended a local grammar school and received some higher educational training at the University of Jena. He served an apprenticeship with Dr. Frederick Korner, an instructor at the school who was also a patron of German author and scientist Johann Wolfgang Goethe. After his contract was completed, Mr. Zeiss received a university certification for the lecture courses he attended, which included Dr. Korner's course on optics.
After spending several years as a journeyman, practicing his trade at various shops throughout Germany and Austria, Mr. Zeiss returned to Jena to open his own optical instruments shop in 1846. He was only one of three such technicians in Jena at the time. Initially, his shop made small optical repairs and sold eyeglasses, but Mr. Zeiss would occasionally sell telescopes and began building small microscopes at the encouragement of botanist Matthias Schleiden. The process was difficult, and at first, Mr. Zeiss lacked both the equipment and the ability to produce little more than single lens microscopes. However, Mr. Zeiss' strong work ethic and desire to learn about microscope construction shifted his full-time vocational focus to producing superior microscopes full time beginning in 1847.
The first year, Mr. Zeiss hired a young journeyman apprentice named August Lober, whose optical expertise was sorely needed. He would remain in Mr. Zeiss' employment throughout his career. The shop struggled initially because Mr. Zeiss had to purchase cut and polished lenses from another optician and his sales were sluggish - selling between 25 and 50 per year as opposed to the 100+ microscopes constructed by Georges Oberhauser of Paris. In such a highly specialized industry, each craftsman performed his own duties, and to lose one could have disastrous implications for the fledgling shop. For example, during his early years, Mr. Zeiss only employed one optician (Mr. Rudolf) who could provide the essential special fittings used in the front lenses of his powerful microscope objectives. When Mr. Rudolf was recruited for military service, a successor could not be properly trained, which meant a sharp decline in Mr. Zeiss' growing business. In desperation, he contacted his university colleagues for assistance. The Grand Duke was petitioned by university officials, and the request for Mr. Rudolf's release from the military was granted.
By the late 1850s, Mr. Zeiss was successful enough to expand his business to include compound microscopes. He designed the Stand I, a large microscope that was fitted with a revolving and mechanical stage and also featured a lighting device. The Stand I went into production in 1857. Four years later, Mr. Zeiss's microscope designs received the Thuringian Industrial Exhibition gold medal, and were considered to be the finest optical instruments in Germany. By 1863, Mr. Zeiss was the official instrument supplier to the Grand Duke.
In 1872, Mr. Zeiss formed a partnership with physicist Ernst Abbe, and together they discovered the Abbe sine condition, which would be a significant improvement in lens construction. However, the team was unable to find a glass strong enough to test their hypothesis. Dr. Abbe consulted with a young glass chemist named Otto Schott, and in 1886, a glass type was developed to use the Abbe sine condition, which created new apochromatic (apo) microscope objective.
Carl Zeiss died of natural causes on December 3, 1888, but his business lives on and remains one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-powered microscopes and other optical instruments.
1904 German Educational Exhibition (Berlin: W. Buxenstein), p. 205.
1906 The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Vol. XXXIV (New York: The Review of Reviews Company), p. 245.
1996 Archimedes: Scientific Credibility and Technical Standards (Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 26-27.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera