ZEISS History

Join us as we embark on an exciting journey through time

The history of ZEISS mirrors German history and all of its highs and lows. Since it was founded as a business in 1846, it has been transformed into a large, research-oriented enterprise that distributes a host of optical products across the world.

World War I, the global financial crisis and World War II were years of ups and downs. Just like Germany, the company was split in two in the aftermath of World War II. After German reunification, the companies merged once more and and suffered a real crisis, and the company as we know it today emerged from these ashes.

People experienced all of it, and created it too. Here you can get a first look at the company’s fascinating history.

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Facts and figures
The Company’s History of ZEISS - At a Glance

Carl Zeiss (1816–1888)

A visionary entrepreneur

In 1846, Carl Zeiss opened a workshop for precision mechanics and optical instruments in Jena. He focused his activities more and more on microscope production. Soon he was supplying not only the regional market but also shipping his wares around the world.

Carl Zeiss

The First Employees and Apprentices

The beginning of the future

In 1847, Carl Zeiss trained his first employees: August Löber (1830–1912) later became a trainer himself. Many employees who helped the company grow at the beginning were also trained by him.

Foreman August Löber with mechanics and apprentices in 1864.
From left to right: Carl Müller, Friedrich Pfaffe, Joseph Rudolph, Wilhelm Böber, Heinrich Pape, Fritz Müller and August Löber.

What became of them?

Carl Müller (1849–1909)

He joined the company in 1864 as one of its first apprentices and assistants. He qualified as a foreman in lens mounting and as of 1890 was also trained in the production of camera lenses. He later became the man in charge of final inspections for telescopes. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Friedrich Pfaffe (1849–?)

On 6 September 1863, he began working for Carl Zeiss as a grinder. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Joseph Rudolph (1841–1914)

Upon joining the company on 23 February 1857, August Löber took him on as a second apprentice lensmaker. He later became a foreman at the grinding shop for microlenses. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Wilhelm Böber (1847–? )

He was hired on 15 April 1861 as the third apprentice lensmaker. He began producing front lens elements and glass lenses in around 1883 and did so from his own home as a lensmaker. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Heinrich Pape (1849–? )

He joined the company as a turner on 2 January 1864 and worked for Carl Zeiss until 1910. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Fritz Müller (1847–1919)

The exceptionally gifted lensmaker joined the company in 1861 and was taught by Carl Zeiss himself. He was soon put in charge of microlens mounting. He worked as senior master at Zeiss until he retired in 1913. (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Ernst Abbe Joins Forces with Zeiss

(1840-1905)

Ernst Abbe

In 1866, Carl Zeiss recruited physicist Ernst Abbe to help him improve microscopes.

His commitment soon spread to other areas of the company. In 1877, he became a partner in the company and helped shape it.

The first homogeneous oil immersion objective lens was developed on the suggestion of John Ware Stephenson; production began in early 1877.

Immersion objective lens K from 1881 (Photo: Timo Mappes) Cross-section of homogeneous immersion (Photo: ZEISS Archives)
Immersion objective lens K from 1881 (Photo: Timo Mappes)
Cross-section of homogeneous immersion (Photo: ZEISS Archives)

Ernst Abbe’s Way of Working Catches on

While science and industry were strictly separated for a long time, they became increasingly interlinked. Zeiss was at the forefront of this change, which has shaped our modern world. Many of Abbe’s students (here is a selection) achieved great things for both science and the company.

In 1879, Dr. Paul Riedel (1852–1909) was the first member of Ernst Abbe’s scientific staff. From 1880 to 1885, he evaluated the optical properties of the glass samples created by Otto Schott. He later worked as a plant chemist. © ZEISS Archives
In 1879, Dr. Paul Riedel (1852–1909) was the first member of Ernst Abbe’s scientific staff. From 1880 to 1885, he evaluated the optical properties of the glass samples created by Otto Schott. He later worked as a plant chemist.
Albin Lautsch (1869–1940) calculated optics for ZEISS for more than 40 years. In 1922 he began working externally on his private estate. © ZEISS Archives
Albin Lautsch (1869–1940) calculated optics for ZEISS for more than 40 years. In 1922 he began working externally on his private estate.
Physicist Prof. Siegfried Czapski (1861–1907) was Abbe’s right-hand man. He also became his successor. He raised the bar in the field of telescopes in particular. © ZEISS Archives
Physicist Prof. Siegfried Czapski (1861–1907) was Abbe’s right-hand man. He also became his successor. He raised the bar in the field of telescopes in particular.
Alfred Hartmann (1862–1898) and Emil Witte (1855–1931) assisted Paul Rudolph in calculating camera lenses. © ZEISS Archives
Alfred Hartmann (1862–1898) and Emil Witte (1855–1931) assisted Paul Rudolph in calculating camera lenses.
Chemist Dr. Otto Schott (185101935) developed new kinds of glass that resulted in the creation of enhanced optical instruments. In 1884 he established Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Genossen together with Zeiss and Abbe. © ZEISS Archives
Chemist Dr. Otto Schott (185101935) developed new kinds of glass that resulted in the creation of enhanced optical instruments. In 1884 he established Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Genossen together with Zeiss and Abbe.
Emil Witte (1855–1931) helped Paul Rudolph calculate camera lenses. © ZEISS Archives
Emil Witte (1855–1931) helped Paul Rudolph calculate camera lenses.
Dr. Paul Rudolph (1858–1935) came up with innovative new camera lenses. The Tessar is his most well-known lens. © ZEISS Archives
Dr. Paul Rudolph (1858–1935) came up with innovative new camera lenses. The Tessar is his most well-known lens.
Richard Schüttauf (1861–1926) joined the Camera Lenses department as Scientific Calculator. He later became Head of the Camera Lab and the Quality Assurance department for Camera Lenses. © ZEISS Archives
Richard Schüttauf (1861–1926) joined the Camera Lenses department as Scientific Calculator. He later became Head of the Camera Lab and the Quality Assurance department for Camera Lenses.
Prof. Carl Pulfrich (1858–1927) achieved great things in the field of chemical analysis technology and spatial measurements for aerial photograph interpretation. © ZEISS Archives
Prof. Carl Pulfrich (1858–1927) achieved great things in the field of chemical analysis technology and spatial measurements for aerial photograph interpretation.

Carl Zeiss Foundation

After the passing of Carl Zeiss in 1889, Ernst Abbe created the Carl Zeiss Foundation, which would become the company’s sole owner. Its profits benefitted science, social and cultural projects, and the workforce, too.

Technological Milestones

Since the 1890s, Abbe’s findings and his style of working have also been adopted in other fields of optics. This led to the creation of all-new products, new business areas and rapid growth for the company.

Main Carl Zeiss Factory

The main Carl Zeiss factory in Jena circa 1908, shortly before further new buildings completely changed the face of the site.

Internationalization

Back in 1893, the first subsidiary was opened in London. Before the outbreak of WWI, sites were established across the world, which then had to be closed when war broke out. There were more ups and downs between then and 1945. Thereafter, the sites outside Germany have been developing in a stable manner and ZEISS is now a globally operating company.

Key Milestones from 1914 onwards

World War I
First World War During WWI, ZEISS produced products almost exclusively for military purposes (especially binoculars and rangefinders). © ZEISS Archives
During WWI, products were manufactured almost exclusively for military purposes (especially binoculars and rangefinders).
Weimar Republic
Weimar Republic | During the days of the Weimar Republic, Carl Zeiss made a comeback on the world’s markets and ensured stable growth. Jena got off reasonably lightly during the global economic crisis. © Ballhaus Archives
During the days of the Weimar Republic, Carl Zeiss made a comeback on the world’s markets and ensured stable growth. Jena got off reasonably lightly during the global economic crisis.
National Socialism
National Socialism: In the 1930s, the company joined the arms race. Optical instruments were redesigned and manufactured for all kinds of weapons. © ZEISS Archives
In the 1930s the company joined the arms race. Optical instruments were redesigned and manufactured for all kinds of weapons.
World War II
WWII In order to cope with the huge production volumes created by arms orders, foreign workers and forced laborers were employed from virtually every country in Europe. © ZEISS Archives
In order to cope with the huge production volumes created by arms orders, foreign workers and forced laborers were employed from virtually every country in Europe.
Occupation
Occupation | The American troops that occupied Thuringia in 1945 took 77 top scientists and engineers with them when they moved into their zone after German division. © ZEISS Archives
The American troops that occupied Thuringia in 1945 took 77 top scientists and engineers with them when they moved into their zone after German division.
New Factory in Oberkochen
New Factory in Oberkochen | With the help of the factory employees in Jena, the employees brought to the West by the Americans established a new company in Oberkochen. © ZEISS Archives
With the help of the factory employees in Jena, the employees brought to the West by the Americans established a new company in Oberkochen.
VEB Carl Zeiss Jena
VEB Carl Zeiss Jena | The company in Jena was nationalized in 1948. In 1965 it was reshaped to form the leading combine in the optics industry, and in 1989 it employed over 70,000 people. © ZEISS Archives
The company in Jena was nationalized in 1948. In 1965 it was reshaped to form the leading combine in the optics industry, and in 1989 it employed over 70,000 people.
Graduation
Division In 1953 collaboration between Jena and Oberkochen had to cease. Across the world, the conflict surrounding the trademark lasted until 1989. © ZEISS Archives
In 1953 collaboration between Jena and Oberkochen had to cease. Across the world, the conflict surrounding the trademark lasted until 1989.
Reunification
Reunification | Shortly after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that the companies in East and West Germany, which were so similar, would have to merge. But the road to achieving this was long and hard. © ZEISS Archives
Shortly after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that the companies in East and West Germany, which were so similar, would have to merge. But the road to achieving this was long and hard.
Crisis and Stabilization
Crisis and Stabilization | The reunified company suffered a crisis in the mid-1990s. Significant cutbacks in the workforce and the product range helped ZEISS resume its successful trajectory. © ZEISS Archives
The reunified company suffered a crisis in the mid-1990s. Significant cutbacks in the workforce and the product range helped ZEISS resume its successful trajectory.
Foundation Reform
Foundation Reform | After lengthy negotiations, the Carl Zeiss Foundation reform came into force in 2004. Carl Zeiss was converted into a stock company owned entirely by its Foundation. © ZEISS Archives
After lengthy negotiations, the Carl Zeiss Foundation reform came into force in 2004. Carl Zeiss was converted into a stock company owned entirely by its Foundation.
20 Years of Reunification

The Story of Carl Zeiss in the 20 years since reunification.

Company Magazine

The Carl Zeiss company magazine can look back on an interesting history of its own

ZEISS Today

Today, Carl Zeiss AG is a holding company with several subsidiaries. In addition to its sites in Oberkochen and Jena, its main production sites are in Wetzlar and Göttingen in Germany, Dublin and Minneapolis in the US, and Shanghai in China.

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