Ernst Abbe Biography (1840-1905)

optical engineer

Ernst Abbe was probably the first optical engineer, designing and perfectingmethods for manufacturing microscopes and lens systems of very high quality.Though he was a great scientist in his own right, he might have remained anonymous but for the foresight of his employer, Carl Zeiss (1816-1888). In his early twenties Abbe was working as a lecturer in Jena, Germany. He was recognized as being intelligent and industrious, particularly in mathematics, but hewas unable to secure a professorial position at the university. In 1855 Zeiss, the owner and operator of a local company which built optical instruments,approached him. Zeiss had realized that the dramatic rise in scientific interest and research in Europe would create a demand for precision instruments--instruments his shop could easily provide. However, neither Zeiss nor his employees possessed the scientific knowledge to design such instruments. Abbe was hired as a consultant to mathematically design lenses of unrivaled excellence.

The science of lenscrafting had stalled since the time of Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), chiefly due to certain seemingly insurmountable flaws in man-made lenses. Foremost among these was the problem of chromatic aberration, which manifested itself as colored circles around the subject. Scientists werealso frustrated with the poor quality of the glass used to make lenses. During the following decade, Abbe worked on new grinding procedures that might correct chromatic aberration; by combining his efforts with Zeiss's glassmaker,Otto Schott, he eventually succeeded in producing near-flawless scientific lenses of very high power.

These same ten years were profitable ones for Abbe. With the increasing success of the Zeiss Works, Abbe was recognized as a brilliant scientist and was given a professorship at Jena University in 1875. Zeiss, who realized that thesuccess of his business was in no small part due to Abbe's efforts, made theyoung professor a partner in 1876.

Abbe's work on theoretical optics earned him international notoriety, and hewas offered a position at the more prestigious University of Berlin (a position he declined in order to continue his research at Zeiss). During their collaboration, Abbe and Zeiss produced thousands of scientific optical instruments. Their innovations set important standards for the development of telescopes and photographic equipment. Carl Zeiss died in 1888, leaving the entire Zeiss Works to Abbe. In addition to running the company, Abbe used his own considerable funds to set up the Carl Zeiss Foundation, an organization for the advancement of science and social improvement.

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