Ernst Abbe Joins Forces with Zeiss

1866 to 1878

Portrait of Ernst Abbe in 1888.

Ernst Abbe in 1888
(Carl Bräunlich, ZEISS Archiv).

Carl Zeiss had made numerous attempts to put microscope production on a scientific basis. The experiments of Friedrich Wilhelm Barfuss had produced no usable results.
In 1866, he joined forces with Ernst Abbe. Initially, Abbe devoted himself to developing an array of measuring instruments to precisely determine the optical characteristics of lenses – an essential part of rational production. Further steps were taken to separate mechanical and optical production. At the same time, Abbe constructed new illumination apparatus. He made his first forays into lens design in 1869 – but this task proved to be a difficult one. Only after a long period spent designing and experimenting was he able to bridge the gap between the lack of experience at the Zeiss workshop and the long-established competitors, and subsequently surpass them. On 12 September 1871, Abbe presented his design plan for a powerful water immersion objective lens. From 1872 onwards, all microscope lenses were produced in line with Abbe’s designs.

Travel microscope inspired by Strassburger; IIIc

from 1876 (Mappes collection)
Homogenen Immersion (Foto: ZEISS Archiv) Immersionsobjektiv K von 1881 (Foto: Timo Mappes).

Cross section of homogeneous immersion (Photo: ZEISS Archives) and immersion lens K from 1881 (Photo: Timo Mappes).

Immersion Objective Lenses

A major breakthrough

The first homogeneous oil immersion objective lens was developed on the suggestion of John Ware Stephenson; production began in early 1877. How this worked? An immersion liquid such as cedar oil, which had a distinctly higher refractive index than air, was placed between the specimen and the lens. This considerably improved the microscope’s resolution, and offered many other benefits, such as fewer reflections.

On 8 January 1879, Abbe was able to tell his friend Anton Dohrn about the success of the new product:

“Business at Zeiss has been very good recently. For 3 months now we have been working tirelessly to fulfill the orders we have received. In particular, the new lenses (oil immersion) – and might I say it is a disgrace that you have yet to receive one of them because they are selling like hot cakes – have truly helped elevate the reputation of the Optical Works both in Germany and abroad. It would seem that over the past 6 months all institutes in Berlin with which we previously had no contact have placed orders for large microscopes.” 

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Company size

11 – 33 employees

Microscope development

2,000 microscopes


Agreement with Abbe

Current events

Foundation of the German Empire