Ernst Abbe


  • Personal History

    Ernst Abbe was a physicist, inventor, entrepreneur, and social reformer. In all areas in which he was active, he made outstanding achievements and therefore played a decisive role in the technical lead, business success and continued existence of the two companies Carl Zeiss and SCHOTT.

    Ernst Abbe, 1863

    Abbe was born in Eisenach on 23 January 1840 and grew up in modest circumstances. With the aid of a scholarship, he was able to begin his studies in mathematics and physics. He studied in Jena and Göttingen from 1857 to 1861. In 1863 he qualified as a lecturer in Jena, where he then worked on a private basis.

    Ernst Abbe, 1870

    Already as a young scientist, Abbe placed his knowledge at the disposal of Carl Zeiss. In 1866 he became a member of Zeiss’ scientific staff. From 1870, Abbe was a professor at the University of Jena. His theory of image formation in the microscope made him the founder of scientific optics and gave Carl Zeiss an important technological lead: while microscopes had been previously built on a trial-and-error basis, they were constructed on a sound mathematical foundation from 1872 onwards and therefore displayed considerably better optical properties. This led to pioneering research in biology and medicine, e.g. by Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich. In 1876, Zeiss made his committed employee his partner and appointed him as his successor as the head of the company. After the death of the company founder in 1888 and the acquisition of shares from Zeiss’ heirs, Ernst Abbe became the sole director of the enterprise.

    Ernst Abbe, 1880

    Together with Otto Schott, Carl Zeiss, and Roderich Zeiss, Abbe founded the Glastechnisches Labortorium Otto Schott & Genossen in Jena in 1884.

    The global reputation of SCHOTT as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of specialist glass has its roots in the collaboration of Abbe, Zeiss und Schott.


    Abbe was an extremely successful entrepreneur.

    In 1862, 25 people worked at Carl Zeiss, generating revenues of 12,618 marks. In the year of Ernst Abbe’ death, the enterprise had grown to just under 1,400 employees, with revenues totaling over 5 million marks.

    Ernst Abbe, 1888

    Abbe was a courageous reformer who was far ahead of his times with his socio-political ideas. In order to safeguard the existence of the companies Carl Zeiss and SCHOTT irrespective of personal ownership interests, Abbe founded the Carl Zeiss Foundation in 1889 and made it the sole owner of the Zeiss works and part owner of the SCHOTT works in 1891 (in 1919, Otto Schott also transferred his shares in the glassworks to the Foundation).

    With his foundation statutes of 1896, Abbe gave the enterprise a unique corporate constitution.  In addition to revolutionary stipulations on corporate management and legally enshrined labor relations, the constitution reflected Abbe’s high degree of social commitment. Some examples include co-determination rights for the employees, paid vacation, profit-sharing, a documented right to retirement pensions, continued payment of wages in the event of illness and, from 1900, the eight-hour working day. This made the foundation companies Carl Zeiss and SCHOTT forerunners of modern social legislation. Abbe’s amazing creative power is impressively underscored in his numerous inventions and in his many publications on scientific, entrepreneurial and social issues. He died in Jena on 14 January 1905.

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  • Entrepreneur

    Merits as Entrepreneur

    Achieves high growth rates for the company

    12,618 marks (1862) - 5,097,719 marks (1904/05)
      Average annual growth approx. 14.5%
    25 (1866) - 1363 (1905)
      Average annual growth approx. 10.5%
      Annual efficiency increase by approx. 4%
      Return on sales between 9% (1903) and 44% (1880)

    Successful adaptation of corporate organization to the high growth rates

    Integration of R&D into the company in order to generate innovation
    Scientific employees were hired for all product groups. They successfully created innovations and therefore achieved the technology leadership of Carl Zeiss

    Training of capable employees and successors, also in the entrepreneurial and commercial areas.

    Implementation of high quality standards
    by the appropriate training of capable employees and quality inspection

    Diversification in the 1890s through the set-up of new business divisions:

    analytical measuring instruments
    • cameras
    • binoculars
    • astronomical instruments
    • defense optics

    Initiation of internationalization process

    Sales branches in London (1894), Vienna (1902) and St. Petersburg (1903).

  • Patents
    • 1890

      Triplet lens

    • 1892

      Aligning 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

  • Scientists

    Shortly after the development of the new microscopes, decisive breakthroughs were made in the field of bacteriology.

    In 1904 Robert Koch wrote:

    "I owe a large proportion of the success
    I have achieved for science to your excellent microscopes."

    In the decades before the First World War, medical research in Germany had a world standing that was paralleled only by the reputation enjoyed by the Zeiss instruments. Emil Behring in the field of serology or Paul Ehrlich in the field of chemotherapy are only two examples of many. Needless to say, their success was not attributable to their instruments alone, but the microscopes did play an important role.

    The firm Carl Zeiss also created products for the field of chemistry, some of which were customized solutions: the gas interferometer for Fritz Haber, for example. Abbe persisted in his endeavors to also provide other manufacturers with new types of optical glass being thus a great help to the German optical industry.

    Abbe was skeptical about the patenting of the products, which he saw as an obstruction to scientific progress in general. Not until competitive pressure made it unavoidable did the patenting of camera lenses and binoculars begin.However, his early pioneering work remained accessible for general use, which was a major help to instrument construction in Germany.

    Carl Zeiss manufactured its products with almost unparalleled precision. In 1925 Albert Einstein wrote the following words to the firm Anschütz in Kiel about the production of a gyrocompass:

    "As the accuracy requirements are so high,
    the difficulties involved are so immense
    that Zeiss is currently the only firm that can achieve a feat of this magnitude."

    With the aid of Abbe’s comparator principle, instruments for the highly accurate measurement of workpieces were produced. These were important aids for German industry which was geared more toward high precision production than toward mass manufacture.

    The 1860s saw the start of the process of integrating science into industry. Other forerunners apart from Carl Zeiss included Siemens and Bayer. Ernst Abbe himself was a pioneer in this field and drove the process by hiring scientific personnel.

  • Inventions

    From 1867 Abbe devoted his time in particular to the theory of image formation in the microscope and invented a number of optical instruments.

    • 1867


    • 1869


    Condenser: illumination apparatus for microscopes

    • 1870


    • 1874


    • 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 Laboratoriums (Schott & Gen.)

    Apochromat lenses with compensating eyepieces

    • 1887


    • 1889

      Thickness gage

    • 1891


    • 1893


    Prismatic binoculars Stereoscopic rangefinder

    • 1894

      Prism binoculars with increased objective lens spacing

    • 1901


  • Reformer

    Many companies started introducing social policies in the late 19th century. Each of Abbe’s measures (health insurance, pensions, 8-hour working day, etc.) had forerunners. However, the decisive aspect about Abbe’s reforms was that he was strongly opposed to the “lord of the house” attitude of other industrialists and did not see these benefits as good, charitable deeds, but as the rights of his employees.

    A council was set up to represent the interests of employees. Although this could not be seen as codetermination in the modern sense of the term, it did entitle the representatives to voice their opinion in all matters concerning the enterprise.

    The statutes of the Carl Zeiss Foundation helped to enshrine labor relations in law. This and these institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution are precursors of the concept known as the social market economy.

    Tolerance was central to Ernst Abbe’s basic philosophy of life. Although he was certainly not a social democrat, it was important to him that this political party was able to evolve and develop freely. He was also vehemently against racism, a phenomenon which was already prevalent during his times. He ensured that no-one at Carl Zeiss suffered in any way due to their origin, religion or political affiliation. This attitude was reflected in the fact that his closest management colleague Siegfried Czapski was Jewish.

    Abbe always attached great importance to the promotion not only of science and research, but also of culture. As a private citizen, Abbe supported the university with anonymous donations.

  • Employee benefits
    • 1875

      Abbe founds the company health insurance scheme 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.

    • 1903

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