Today we celebrate one of the great names in optics – it’s the birthday of Carl Zeiss, born on 11 September 1816.
Zeiss studied mathematics, physics and optics, among other subjects, at the University of Jena, before he started experimenting with making lenses. By 1847 he founded Carl Zeiss AG and started manufacturing microscopes full time.
Zeiss real contribution came from his realisation that, to differentiate himself from other manufacturers in the optics industry, he had to significantly up the ante in terms of quality and innovation. He first teamed up with the physicist Dr Ernst Abbe, who calculated that the optical quality of lenses at the time left much room for improvement, but also found that the optical glass available was not up to his manufacturing requirements. Zeiss then brought on board glass chemist Dr Otto Schott, who established a glassworks at Jena where he produced new, better quality glass that was able to meet and exceed Abbe’s requirements.
While the lenses produced by Zeiss were initially primarily used in the manufacture of microscopes, the glass produced at Jena also opened up possibilities for the creation of much improved photographic lenses, for use in still and video cameras. Zeiss’ early innovations in photographic lenses happened mostly through the contributions of Dr Paul Rudolph, who was responsible for many classic Zeiss lenses around the end of the 19th century including the famous Planar® in 1896. Later famous Zeiss lenses included the Tessar® (1902) and the Sonnar® (1931). In 1935, Alexander Smakula developed an innovative anti-reflective coating for camera lenses, known as the Carl Zeiss T-coating, which opened up totally new possibilities in lens design, and is a key component in modern photographic lens design.
Even though much of the photographic contributions made by the Carl Zeiss AG company only happened after the death of its founder (Carl Zeiss died on 3 December 1888), his name will always be inextricably linked to top quality photographic optics. Zeiss lenses were used extensively in the cameras manufactured by Zeiss Ikon, one of the companies in the Zeiss group, who started producing the classic Contax cameras in the mid-20th century. The Contax rangefinder was the first 35mm camera to pose a serious challenge to the iconic Leica M-series of the time.
Zeiss lenses have been used by many of the great camera brands, including Voigtlander, Hasselblad, Rollei and Sony.
Aside from microscopy and photography, the optical innovations created by Carl Zeiss and his company have found a use in a wide range of applications, from medical solutions to sports optics to industrial metrology.