Ernst Abbe

Physicist, inventor, entrepreneur & social reformer

In all areas in which he worked, Ernst Abbe enabled outstanding achievements and thus played a decisive role in being a technological leader, and in ensuring business success and the continued existence of ZEISS and SCHOTT.

Ernst Abbe's Biography

An Overview

1840–1865 Training
Ernst Abbe, 1857 © ZEISS Archives

Ernst Abbe was born in Eisenach on 23 January 1840 to a humble family. Thanks to a scholarship, he was able to begin studying to become a mathematician and a physicist. He studied in Jena and Göttingen from 1857 to 1861. In 1863, Abbe qualified as a professor in Jena, where he then worked as a private lecturer.

1866–1888 Scientists
Ernst Abbe, 1866 © ZEISS Archives

Already as a young scientist, Abbe placed his knowledge at the disposal of Carl Zeiss. He was hired as a scientist in 1866. From 1870, Abbe was a professor at the University of Jena. His theory of microscope imaging made him the founder of scientific optics and gave Carl Zeiss an important technological boost: 

While microscopes had previously been built only by using the trial-and-error method, from 1872 on they were designed on the foundation of sound scientific calculations, thereby exhibiting vastly improved optical properties. This in turn allowed for pioneering research in biology and medicine, such as that by Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich. In 1876, Carl Zeiss made his dedicated employee a partner and appointed him to take over as head of the company. After the death of the company founder in 1888 and acquisition of the shares from Zeiss’ heirs, Ernst Abbe became the sole director of the industrial company.

1884–1905 Entrepreneur
Ernst Abbe, 1870 © ZEISS Archives

Together with Otto Schott, Carl Zeiss and Roderich Zeiss, Abbe founded Glastechnisches Labortorium Otto Schott & Genossen in Jena in 1884. The global reputation SCHOTT enjoys as one of the world's leading special glass manufacturers was born of the successful collaboration between Abbe, Zeiss and Schott.

Abbe was an exceptionally successful entrepreneur. In 1862, 25 employees worked at Carl Zeiss, generating a revenue of 12,618 marks. The year Ernst Abbes died, the company employed nearly 1,400 staff, with revenue of over 5 million marks.

1889–1896 Founder
Ernst Abbe, 1880 © ZEISS Archives

Abbe was a courageous reformer whose sociopolitical ideas were well ahead of their time. To ensure the continuation of the company regardless of the personal interests of the owners, Abbe established the Carl Zeiss Foundation in 1889, which he made the sole owner of the Zeiss works and partial owner of the SCHOTT works in 1891 (in 1919, Otto Schott also transferred his shares in the glassworks to the foundation).

1896–1905 Reformer
Ernst Abbe, 1894 © ZEISS Archives

With the foundation charter of 1896, Abbe provided the company with unique corporate governance. In addition to extraordinarily forward-thinking provisions regarding company management and legally stipulated work relations, the charter also reflected Abbe’s social commitment. For example, employees had co-determination rights, paid vacation, profit-sharing, a documented right to retirement pay, continued payment of wages in the event of illness, and, starting in 1900, an eight-hour workday. This made Foundation companies Carl Zeiss and SCHOTT forerunners of modern social legislation. Abbe’s amazing creative power is demonstrated by his numerous inventions and his publications on scientific, entrepreneurial and social issues. He died in Jena on 14 January 1905.

Merits as Entrepreneur

Achievement of the company’s high growth rates

Achievement of the company’s high growth rates

Cashflow development

  • 12,618 marks (1862) to 5,097,719 marks (1904/05)
  • Average annual growth approx. 14.5%
  • Return on sales between 9% (1903) und 44% (1880)

Employees

  • from 25 employees in 1866 to 1,363 employees in 1905
  • Average annual growth approx. 10.5%
  • Annual increased efficiency by approx. 4%

Successful adaptation of the corporate structure to the high growth
Product groups (segments) were created with clearly defined areas of responsibility for the scientific, technical, and commercial employees.

Profitability achieved despite tremendous growth

Profitability achieved despite tremendous growth

Integration of R&D at the company for innovation development
Scientific employees were hired for all divisions and successfully churned out innovations, thereby forging the technological leadership of Carl Zeiss.

Training of capable employees and successors, including in the corporate and commercial divisions.

Implementation of high quality standards by training skilled employees and through quality controls.

Diversification in the 1890s via the establishment of new business divisions:

  • Analytical measuring machines
  • Photo
  • Binoculars
  • Astronomical Devices
  • Military Optics

Start of Internationalization

  • 1894 – Sales Branch in London
  • 1902 – Sales Branch in Vienna
  • 1903 – Sales Branch in St. Petersburg

Patents

As a liberal of the 19th century, Ernst Abbe opposed patenting. That's why all his findings in the field of microscope production prior to 1890 were not patented. Like many others, one argument persuaded Abbe of the importance of patenting his inventions: the alternative to a patent would be secrecy. However, secrecy is a greater restriction to progress than the time-limited monopoly of a patent. Starting in 1890, Abbe therefore patented his inventions, which would not result in any restrictions for his scientific research.

Field Glasses Patent © ZEISS Archives

1890

  • Triplet lens

1892

  • Adjusting device for rangefinders
  • Binoculars (telescope with multiplying prisms)
  • Shear joint

1895

  • Stereoscopic rangefinder

1899

  • Fixture for observing or reproduction of a peripheral area of an image projected by a lens system
  • Lens system with correction of aberrations of oblique pencils
  • Methods of inspecting spheroid surfaces and determining the position and size of deviations from the specified shape

1901

  • Device for generating a spheroid surface on a rotating workpiece

1905

  • Barrel insert featuring a telescopic sight used for adjusting the sighting device

Shortly after the new microscope was developed, significant breakthroughs were made in the area of bacteriology.

A large part of my success, I have been privileged to achieve in science I owe to your excellent microscopes.

Robert Koch, 1904

In the decades before World War I, medical research in Germany attained world renown to a degree comparable only to that of the ZEISS instruments themselves. Emil Behring in the field of serology and Paul Ehrlich in the field of chemotherapy are but two such examples. To be sure, their success cannot be solely attributed to the instruments, but they were certainly helped by them.

There was also an unprecedented upturn in chemistry. In this area, Carl Zeiss offered products that were in part custom-made, such as the special gas interferometers developed for Fritz Haber long before the war.

Abbe insisted that the new optical glass be made available to other manufacturers as well. That helped to boost the entire German optics industry. Abbe was skeptical about applying for patents, since he viewed this as restricting general scientific progress. It was only when pressure from the competition made it unavoidable that patents for camera lenses and binoculars were applied for. Still, his early trailblazing work remained accessible to general use, which certainly went a long way towards advancing instrument-making in Germany.

Ernst Abbe with Jena university professors, 1894 © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe with Jena university professors, 1894

The precision of Carl Zeiss production outdid practically all the competition. In 1925, Albert Einstein wrote to the company Anschütz in Kiel about the production of a gyro compass:

The difficulties of manufacturing are so great – accuracies of 10-4 have to be achieved – that Zeiss is currently the only company able to meet the requirements.

Albert Einstein, 1925

Abbe’s comparator principle was used to produce instruments for high-precision workpiece measurements. These benefits were important for the German industry, which was much more interested in precision production than in mass quantities.

In the 1860s, the integration of science in industry began. Besides Carl Zeiss, other pioneers were Siemens and Bayer. Ernst Abbe personally promoted this process by adding scientists to the personnel.

Inventions

Since he teamed up with Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe has made both minor and major contributions to the progress of microscope construction. The story of all these improvements has not yet been fully written. Abbe came up with ideas for other products early on, but the company didn't launch other optical instruments until 1890. His most well-known inventions are listed below.

© ZEISS Archives
Dilatometer © ZEISS Archives

1867

  • Focimeter

1869

  • Refractometer
  • Condenser 
  • Illumination apparatus for microscopes 

1870

  • Apertometer

1874

  • Spectrometer

1877/78

  • First microscope with homogeneous immersion (oil immersion)

1880

  • Stereo eyepiece

1886

  • New microscope objectives and eyepieces made of special glass from the Glastechnisches Laboratorium (Schott & Gen.)
  • Apochromat lenses with compensating eyepieces 

1887

  • Spherometer

1889

  • Thickness gage

1891

  • Comparator

1893

  • Dilatometer
  • Prism binoculars 
  • Stereoscopic rangefinder 

1894

  • Prism binoculars with increased objective lens spacing

1901

  • Microspectroscope

Ernst Abbe the Reformer

In the late 19th century, many companies began to establish a social policy. Every one of Abbe’s measures (such as health insurance, retirement pay, and the 8-hour workday) had precursors. What was different with Abbe is that – in conscious contrast to the "Lord of the Manor "mentality of other employers – he put these social benefits in place not as perks, but as employee rights.

An interest group was established just for employees. While this interest group had no right of co-determination, it did have the right to be heard on all company issues.

All these work relations were regulated by means of the Carl Zeiss Foundation charter. Both the regulation and the institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution are precursors to the social market economy.

Tolerance was an essential concept in Abbe’s thinking. Even though Abbe was definitely no social democrat, it was important to him that this party was allowed to develop freely. He was also vehemently opposed to racism, which was already causing trouble during his lifetime. He made sure that no one at Carl Zeiss was discriminated against due to religion, heritage, or political opinion. For instance, this is evident by the fact that his closest management colleague, Siegfried Czapski, was Jewish.

Promoting science and culture: Privately, Ernst Abbe supported the university with anonymous donations. After the Carl Zeiss Foundation was established, it provided financial support to the university and to the city of Jena.

Employee benefits

1875
Ernst Abbe created the company health insurance fund at Carl Zeiss

1886
Creation of endowment fund for scientific purposes

1887
Establishment of a fund for providing pensions to retired employees and their surviving dependents

1888
Joint pension statute for the Zeiss and Schott works

1889
Carl Zeiss Foundation established on 19 May 1889

1890
Introduction of the nine-hour day at Zeiss

1896

  • Minimum wage for employees.
  • Profit sharing for employees.
  • Introduction of vacation leave for employees.
  • Founding of a housing association.
  • Founding of the reading hall association and creation of the reading hall in Jena.


1899 to 1903
Support in the expansion of physics courses by the creation of additional professorships and institutes (in 1899 or 1902/03 for microscopy, in 1902 for applied mathematics, in 1902/03 for technical physics; new physics institute in 1901/02).

1900
The eight-hour day is introduced at Zeiss.

1903
Inauguration of the Volkshaus (“House of the People“) in Jena

Historical Photos

Ernst Abbe, 1875. © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe, 1875.
Abbe’s birthplace in Eisenach. © ZEISS Archives
Abbe’s birthplace in Eisenach.
Ernst Abbe’s calculations on water immersion in 1886. © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe’s calcuations on water immersion in 1886.
Else Abbe with her daughters Paula and Grete. © ZEISS Archives
Else Abbe with her daughters Paula and Grete.
Large crystal refractometer based on Abbe’s design, 1893. © ZEISS Archives
Large crystal refractometer based on Abbe’s design, 1893.
Ernst Abbe, 1876 © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe, 1876
Abbe refractometer, around 1900. © ZEISS Archives
Abbe refractometer, around 1900.
Fluorite harvesting grounds in Oltschikopf near Brienzwiler (Switzerland) circa 1901 © ZEISS Archives
Fluorite harvesting grounds in Oltschikopf near Brienzwiler (Switzerland) circa 1901: Abbe searches for fluorite. (Ernst Abbe can be seen at the window.)
Abbe’s dilatometer, 1893. © ZEISS Archives
Abbe’s dilatometer, 1893.
Prof. Ernst Abbe with his wife Else Abbe © ZEISS Archives
Prof. Dr. Ernst Abbe with his wife Else Abbe, née Snell, from the railing of a ship on a Mediterranean cruise.
Abbe in a straw hat at the front gate of his house, circa 1900. © ZEISS Archives
Abbe in a straw hat at the front gate of his house, circa 1900.
Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott examining the chainless bicycle of Paul Rudolph. © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott examining the chainless bicycle of Paul Rudolph.
Ernst Abbe with Jena university professors, 1894. © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe with Jena university professors, 1894.
Ernst Abbe monument, circa 1910. © ZEISS Archives
Ernst Abbe monument, circa 1910.
Gravesite of Prof. Ernst Abbe. © ZEISS Archives
Anniversary: 150 years of Carl Zeiss Jena – Gravesite of Prof. Ernst Abbe.