Sunday, April 19, 2015

Goethe and Germany's optical revolution

Arrival on the moon, recorded by Hasselblad camera with Zeiss lens
This is a “Nachtrag” to my last post concerning Carl Zeiss and Goethe. I mentioned in that post a friend who formerly occupied a high position at Zeiss. He has since written me that he was doubtful that any role could be attributed to Goethe in the transformation of Carl Zeiss’s small mechanical workshop in Jena into the world giant in optics. My friend has written me that it was Carl Zeiss’s cooperation with Ernst Abbe that made this possible. Among other things, Abbe developed the famous optical laws that defined the curvature of glass and that made possible the production a reliable lens on an industrial scale.

Abbe was born in 1840 in Eisenach, thus in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. The Neue Deutsche Biographie says that he came from a humble home. His father was a printer, later the foreman in a spinnery. As with many of the great inventors of the 19th century, Abbe’s early genius was recognized and, through his family’s efforts and patronage, he was able to study physics and mathematics at Jena and later at Göttingen, where he got his Ph.D. in 1861. His interests, however, were not specifically in optics, and it was only after what NDB calls the “schicksalhafte Verbindung mit Carl Zeiss,” beginning in 1867, that he discovered his “Lebensaufgabe.” I will not try to detail his many accomplishments; Wikipedia gives a good summary, including the formula for his discovery of the resolution limit of the microscope (published in 1873), which is engraved on a commemorative plaque in Jena.

Still, the “intellectual ambience” of Jena, so to speak, one that Goethe nourished, establishes a connection between him and Friedrich Körner, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, and Zeiss. It was the latter, after an apprenticeship with Körner, who built the lens-making workshop in Jena. By 1861 already he was recognized as one of the leading instrument makers in Germany. In 1866 the workshop sold its thousandth microscope. It was at that point that he consulted with Abbe, who, until then had only occasionally occupied himself with optics. Later Abbe became the sole owner of the company, but in honor of his friend Carl Zeiss and as a sign of Abbe’s modesty, he kept the name ZEISS even after he owned all shares of the company and turned it into a foundation.

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