Happy Birthday, Mr. Carl Zeiss!

On September 11, 2016 the town of Jena, Germany, celebrated the 200th birthday of Mr. Carl Zeiss. I am sharing here some impressions from the personal life of Mr. Carl Zeiss – one of the great pioneers of microscopy – as told through the events of his 200th birthday celebration.

Carl Zeiss Jena was originally located at Johannisplatz in Jena. On September 11, 2016 it looked like this:

Brass Band Blechklang plays a birthday song for the visitors at the 200th birthday celebration of Mr. Carl Zeiss at Johannisplatz Jena, September 11, 2016.

This is the house where the Zeiss family lived and where he operated his microscope business:

Historical house of the Carl Zeiss Jena company at Johannisplatz Jena. Mr. Carl Zeiss moved into this building in 1858. By 1866, he had manufactured one thousand microscopes.

The family who now lives in this house opened their doors to the public and served home-made plum pie to the visitors.The lady of the house told me they had more than thousand visitors coming through their house that day.

Welcome reception at Johannisplatz Jena for the 200th birthday celebration of Mr. Carl Zeiss.

Now let’s take a look at the company around the year 1860. A replica of the interior is now located at the Optical Museum Jena:

Entrance Door to Carl Zeiss Optische Werkstätte Jena, Optical Museum Jena.
Microscope assembly line of Carl Zeiss Jena around 1860, Optical Museum Jena.
Lens production from glass pieces. Notice the tools for concave and convex lens shapes. Optical Museum Jena.
Lens polishing. Optical Museum Jena.
Lenses are inserted into fixtures. Optical Museum Jena.
Final microscope assembly. Optical Museum Jena.

Now let’s take a look at some microscopes from this time. Here is an early single lens microscope, the predecessor of the modern Foldscope:

Single Lens Microscope from Carl Zeiss Jena.

Notice the condenser lens between the mirror and the object holder. It renders a divergent beam of light into a parallel or converging beam to illuminate the object. The better the illumination, the better the image quality of the microscope.

Here is another model:

Another single lens microscope from Carl Zeiss Jena.

And a flyer, how single lens microscopes were advertised. It’s recommended for the use at home to examine meat and cotton fabrics.

Advertisement for single lens microscope from Carl Zeiss Jena in 1865.

Eventually, Carl Zeiss Jena became famous for compound microscopes. Here is a very early model of a compound microscope:

Early compound microscope from Carl Zeiss Jena.

Now, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the single lens design. The main limitaion for the attainable magnification comes from the size and quality of the lens in the microscope. At the time when these microscopes were built, magnification of the single lens microscope was limited to around 300. That is different now with modern technology. Prof. Prakash envisions for the Foldscope to eventually reach a magnification of over 2000. That would be possible with a very small saphire lens less than 200 µm in diameter.

Finally, let’s take a look at the people of the Carl Zeiss company. Everybody from the early team is on here, except Mr. Zeiss himself.

Employees and apprentices of the Carl Zeiss Jena company in 1864.

Mr. Zeiss was the sales man in the shop. He would greet the customers who came into his building at Johannisplatz in Jena.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Manu Prakash says:

    What an incredible view into the lane of history. Thanks @sibby for such a comprehensive and personal tour. All of us; microscopy fans – from around the world, got a chance to see this through your eyes.

    I am curious; in 1860-70’s – how many microscopes were being made. How did society react to the idea of “small world”. Does the museum collect news articles, publicity material – how did a common person on the street react to such a tool. As we make microscopy more accessible around the world; it’s a wonderful delight to envision the past while planning the future.

    Thanks for sharing.


    1. Sibby says:

      Hi Manu, in the early years of Carl Zeiss Jena the number of sold microscopes was small. It varied from 23 in 1847 to 38 in 1852. In order to make a living, Mr. Zeiss also had to act as a retailer for glasses, magnifiers, thermometers, and barometers. There was little demand for microscopes in the town of Jena itself. However, from the time of founding his company Mr. Zeiss had anticipated his market to be in the rising scientific centers and metropolitan areas throughout Europe. In the first twenty years he mostly sold to German university and commercial towns. From the very beginning he had international customers as far away as Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the period from 1870 to 1889 he already sold 13 thousand microscopes throughout Western Europe – from Berlin, Utrecht, Brussels, Paris, London, Cambridge, Edinburgh – and even to New York.

      The microscopes supported the research and education at universities. They were also used by pharmacists, but not really by the common person on the street. Mr. Zeiss closely interacted with the biologists, physiologists, and botanists who were his customers, listened to their requests for better instruments, and kept interested in their work. The physician Robert Koch attributed some of his discoveries to the instruments built in Jena.

      The museum that has so many of these wonderful exhibits on display has actually undergone some changes since I took the photographs. It was renamed into German Optical Museum. The 200th birthday celebrations served as the basis to further invest into the future of the museum. But I think, the latest innovation in microscopy – the Foldscope – isn’t yet part of the collection. Do we want to change that?

      Here is the link to the museum https://www.deutsches-optisches-museum.de/en/
      Please let me know of your ideas. I can be the matchmaker.

  2. laksiyer says:

    What a fantastic machine shop. Lens grinding was such a closely guarded secret and art in the days of Mr. Zeiss. I have always wanted to see through a Carl Zeiss, owning one still remains a very expensive proposition.

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