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 –three entrepreneurs who helped the optical industry take flight. A portrait from BETTER VISION.
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 silver coin used throughout Europe for almost 400 years) – a loan from his brother Eduard, who lived in the area – Carl began the official operation of his "Werkstätte für Feinmechanik und Optik" on November 17, 1846. A historic date. Zeiss first worked without any employees, constructing, repairing and optimizing 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 glass lenses, turned out to be extremely popular with his customers.
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's 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.
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 In particular, the "trial and error" production methods common at the time struck him as outdated: this was a process in which the lenses were exchanged and their spacing was changed until it resulted in a usable optical system.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, optimizing and constructing, until Zeiss was finally able to unveil a microscope in 1872 whose quality exceeded that of all of the competitive 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 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 dreamed 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. A 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 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 transferred 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 laws 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.