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Miracle in Jena: The Story of Carl Zeiss and Schott

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2009
David L. Shenkenberg, Features Editor, david.shenkenberg@laurin.com

Did you know that Carl Zeiss, Otto Schott and Ernst Abbe knew each other? In fact, the three men went into business together. They came together because “there was a technological challenge,” according to Jürgen Steiner, who is organizing materials and events in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Schott company.

In 1846, Carl Zeiss set up his optical workshop in Jena, Germany. Zeiss persuaded Ernst Abbe, an eminent physicist at the University of Jena, to develop the mathematical foundation for the perfect microscope objective, which is how Abbe developed his famous limit, or sine condition: R = l/(n • sin(a)) where n • sin(a) represents the numerical aperture.

Figure1.jpg
Pictured are Ernst Abbe (left), Otto Schott (right) and Carl Zeiss (bottom). Photos courtesy of Carl Zeiss.

Although Abbe had given Zeiss the mathematical foundation for the microscope lens, they needed someone to craft the lens. It was then that Abbe met with glass chemist Otto Schott, who had just received his doctorate from the University of Jena. Together, the three men founded Schott & Associates Glass Technology Laboratory with Roderich Zeiss in 1884.

With Schott’s expertise, the company developed apochromatic lenses that went into Zeiss microscope objectives. These lenses greatly reduced or even eliminated color distortion and brought microscopes to their modern resolution limit. Schott also invented borosilicate glass, a heat- and chemical-resistant glass that is still widely used today.

Through the ashes of World War II

It was the squabbling among heirs that divided Joseph von Fraunhofer’s institute of optics in Munich and the death of Carl Zeiss in 1888 that prompted Abbe to start the Carl Zeiss Foundation. “Abbe, he wanted to [make] sure that the two companies, the Zeiss company and Schott company, will exist for the future without [the interference of the] personal interests of the owners,” Steiner said. The process of incorporating both companies into the foundation began in 1889 and was completed by 1919.

Despite the best-laid plans of Abbe, the foundation was no match for World War II. During the war, Allied airplanes bombed the Zeiss and Schott factories because they were making optics for Nazi military equipment. Although damaged by the bombing, much of the operations survived.

In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the Americans moved Zeiss, Schott and the Carl Zeiss Foundation to new headquarters in the respective West German cities of Oberkochen, Mainz and Heidenheim. What was not divested by the Americans or taken to Mother Russia became the Soviet-owned company, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the West German companies won all legal rights to the Carl Zeiss and Schott trademarks and reclaimed some operations in Jena. Part of the formerly Soviet-owned company became Jenoptik GmbH. Although the Zeiss and Schott companies have changed tremendously, they have reclaimed their positions as world leaders in optics. “It was privately a very impressive situation when my country was reunited,” Steiner said.

Selected technical achievements

Over the years, the Schott company has developed Ceran glass-ceramic cooking surfaces for the home, the Zerodur mirror substrate for astronomical telescopes, and a solar receiver for power plants, which in December 2008 was nominated for the German Future Prize by Germany’s President Horst Köhler.

Figure2.jpg
Shown are the Schott Mainz factory (top), Carl Zeiss Jena (center) and the Jenoptik tower (bottom). Photos courtesy of Schott, Carl Zeiss and the city of Jena.

The semiconductor technologies, or SMT, business unit of Carl Zeiss received the 2007 Innovation Award of German Industry for its immersion optics for microchip fabrication and a Wall Street Journal Technology Innovations Award in 2007 for its Orion helium-ion microscope.

In more sensational news, the company has won two Oscars for its movie-camera lenses, and the company’s lenses have been used in US spaceflights since 1958. Until the 1930s, its planetariums were featured in cities such as Chicago, Milan, Philadelphia and Tokyo. In modern times, the company has resumed production of planetarium equipment.

The city of Jena was basking in its own glory in 2008 when a German science association dubbed it the “City of Science,” and the University of Jena celebrated its 450th anniversary.


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