Understanding Vision

Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott – a winning team

They changed the world with their ideas

16 October 2020
  • Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott – A Winning Team

These men combined their expert knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry and precision mechanics like no one before and laid the groundwork for numerous trailblazing inventions: Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott – these were three entrepreneurs, who helped the optical industry take flight. A portrait from BETTER VISION.

Carl Zeiss

Carl Zeiss Jena – the emergence of a global player

Germany in the middle of the 19th century: after completing his training to become a mechanic, the 30 year-old Carl Zeiss (1816-1888) started his own business in Jena. With a starting capital of 100 thalers – a loan from his brother Eduard, who lived in the area – Carl began the official operation of his "Werkstätte für Feinmechanik und Optik" on 17 November 1846. An historic date. Zeiss first worked without any employees, constructing, repairing and optimising different instruments by himself. His magnifiers, made from mirror glass, sold particularly well, but even those products from other manufacturers, such as thermometers, telescopes and spectacles, turned out to be extremely popular with his customers.

Not only better quality than the competition, but also better value

Business was so good that Zeiss expanded his business a short time later, hired his first employees and moved into a larger workshop. It was primarily the production of simple microscopes which turned out to be exceedingly profitable for the company: they were not only better value than the competition's, but also better quality. Here we already see Zeiss' determination to be innovative: unlike the other producers' devices, users could operate the focus setting directly on the column rather than on the specimen stage – a far more convenient method of operation.

Ernst Abbe

Using teamwork to achieve global success

Yet Zeiss was not satisfied and continued to further improve his microscope technology over the years. In particular, the "trial and error" production methods common at the time struck him as outdated: this was a process, in which the lenses were exchanged and their spacing was changed until it resulted in a usable optical system. Confronted with an inefficient system of trial and error, Zeiss ignored standard practice and developed the idea of using calculations to produce his microscope lenses in the future. Thus the precision engineer ultimately chose one particular employee to make his conception of an ideal production process a reality in 1866. From this time on, he worked on his great goal with the physicist Ernst Abbe (1840–1905): to develop a microscope which would exceed the optical properties of all his competitors' devices. Zeiss was 50, Abbe had just turned 26. They might have been different ages, but they had the same vision. For six years, the team worked meticulously, optimising and constructing, until Zeiss was finally able to unveil a microscope in 1872 whose quality exceeded that of all his competitors' products. This competitive edge brought the team international recognition, scientists and doctors sang their praises. Zeiss rewarded Abbe for his success with a generous offer of profit participation and ultimately made him a partner in 1875.

The road to independence

The company grew rapidly, selling more and more instruments and employing more and more people. And yet there was still one problem that needed to be solved: although Zeiss and Abbe had successfully built excellent microscope lenses, they still could not buy special optical glass. They dreamt of taking over the production themselves and producing optical glass of the best-possible quality in Jena. But how?

It did not take belong before they had an answer. The 28 year-old chemist and glass expert from Witten named Otto Schott (1851–1935) developed a procedure to melt small quantities of glass. This allowed different compositions to be tried out. He melted a glass-type with completely new optical properties: lithium glass. Without any hesitation, he sent a sample of it to the world-renowned physicist Abbe in 1879 – and in doing so, he began a fruitful collaboration, which intensified soon thereafter. Schott settled in Jena, where a glass laboratory was set up for him (This later became the Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Genossen, the present-day Schott AG). Here Schott first developed and manufactured new optical glass materials and then invented a thermally and chemically resistant borosilicate glass (known today as Jeaner Glass). This enabled him to offer a wider product portfolio. Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott – a winning team, a fateful connection.

Zeiss and Abbe – entrepreneurs with a sense of responsibility

Zeiss and Abbe do not only stand for scientific pioneering achievements and entrepreneurial aptitude, but also for a sense of responsibility and outstanding sociopolitical achievements. After Carl Zeiss' death in 1888, Abbe successfully transfered his shares of the company and the glassworks, along with those of the Zeiss family, into the Carl Zeiss Foundation. At first, he wanted to secure the company's existence by making it independent of his personal interests. Abbe drew up the statute in 1896. From now on, the company's profits were to benefit the University of Jena and Jena's population. The legal regulations were also pioneering. He laid down legally enforceable workers' rights at a time when there was no such thing as labor law and the relationship between the employer and the employee was still patriarchal. Even though other companies eventually introduced such regulations like the 9- or 8-hour day (beginning in 1900), these working conditions were guaranteed for ZEISS employees.

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