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The camera that went to the moon

 OBERKOCHEN, GERMANY – There are few places in the world where you can see the spectacles of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, a camera similar to the one Neil Armstrong took to the moon, three Academy Awards for Science and Engineering – and a model of an X-Ray telescope so powerful it has reached across the galaxies and recorded events in outer space that occurred long before we were born.


There may be only one place, in fact, where you can see all of those things, and it is tucked away in a nondescript modern industrial complex at the bottom of a snowy valley in southern Germany.


This quiet corner of the world is the headquarters of the Carl Zeiss Group, and there is a treasure-trove of artifacts stashed away that stretch back to the birth of optics, and reflects the company’s unique history.

“Without Zeiss we wouldn’t even know what the world looks like”. 

Most of us now use a Carl Zeiss lens every time we take a picture with our Nokia Lumia 800, N9 or N8 – but ZEISS products have almost certainly touched your life in other ways.  That might include a camera lens, a film shot with ZEISS cinematography lenses, eyeglasses, binoculars, images from the NASA space program, or the most advanced kind of medical microscopes and instruments for telescopic surgery. 


The lens that filmed the movies

Even the latest advances in microchip technology have been made using ZEISS lenses for semi-conductor manufacturing that are designed and produced in a neighbouring factory close to the small town Oberkochen.


After working at Carl Zeiss for his entire career, Dietmar Mondon is now the living oracle of company history: “I basically lived 43 years in this company, and then you cannot simply retire. I worked in technology and science, and my father was a scientist in the original Carl Zeiss plant in Jena before me. So, you have no choice. You are branded like a horse, that’s it”


The wispy white-bearded sage shows a unique collection of optics exhibited at the Carl Zeiss museum, including the first polished reading stones used to magnify medieval manuscripts, spectacles used by the German Kaiser, ancient ‘sunglasses’ worn by mandarins in the court of the Chinese Emperor, and Napoleon’s telescope seized by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. 

Ancient Chinese spectacles

“Glass occurs naturally in nature, with flashes of thunderstorms melting glass tubes into the sands of the Libyan dessert. The Egyptians knew how to make glass, and then the Romans did too. Using polished lenses really started in the Netherlands using glass from Venice.”

The Carl Zeiss workshop


By the time Carl Zeiss began making microscopes for scientists in the university town of Jena in 1846, glass lenses were an accepted way of magnification – but it was a time-consuming, laborious – and expensive – process using trial and error on each piece of glass. In his first year Carl Zeiss sold 23 microscopes:


“He was fighting the problem of poor image quality, he made ten lenses and combined them to objectives. Then he looked through each of them. One was good, the next was good, the next was garbage, then the next was good. Zeiss knew this was not the way to run a successful business.”


Zeiss began working with a mathematics and physics professor at the University of Jena, Ernst Abbe

Zeiss microscopes

He had discovered the Abbe Sine Condition, a formula for imaging theory that led Carl Zeiss to build the first microscope in the world constructed with the help of physical laws in 1872.


Now Zeiss could make different types of microscopes using, in Ernst Abbe’s own words, “a precise study of the materials used, the designs concerned are specified by computation to the last detail – every curvature, every thickness, every aperture of a lens – so that any groping around is excluded.”


Mass production was still difficult, however, as the glass used at the time couldn’t fully test the theory. Ernst Abbe then met the third person who would be instrumental in the development of Carl Zeiss optics –  a glass chemist called Otto Schott. He developed a new type of glass that could fully use the Abbe Sine Condition, an apochromatic lens.


Apochromats were made in different varieties including dry, water immersion and homogeneous immersion, and were used together with compensating eyepieces, to provide images that had no colour distortion.  


In 1886, when those three elements came together, Carl Zeiss made his 10,000th microscope.


There was one key element still missing, however. When August Köhler joined  the Carl Zeiss company he brought with him an illumination method, known as Köhler Illumination, that is still used today to produce optimum results in microscopy.

Classic Zeiss binoculars

Carl Zeiss died in 1888, but the company he had founded went on to produce a series of milestones in 20th Century optical history – including metallographic microscopes, anastigmatic photolenses, binocular microscopes with image-reversing prisms, and the world’s first stereomicroscope.



And there was another development, fixed to a microscope, that heralded a new direction for the company in the 20th century. Carl Zeiss attached a small camera to capture and document what was on the slide.


This not only marked a huge step forward for scientists who could now share their work, but also led to the dawn of a new hobby and profession – photography.



Carl Zeiss’ domination of photography began in the 20th Century with the work of Paul Rudolph.

Dietmar Mondon says, “We knew how to make lenses for microscopes and so we started making lenses for cameras.”

An old Zeiss lens

Paul Rudolph first designed a symmetrical lens now known as a ‘Protar’ which was a highly corrected single combination lens which could be mounted with another lens in a single barrel to give even greater performance and a larger aperture. 

His most important work was still to come, however, with the development of the Tessar lens in 1902. The Tessar comprised four elements in three groups, one positive crown glass element at the front, one negative flint glass element at the center and a negative plano-concave flint glass element cemented with a positive convex crown glass element at the rear.

The Tessar was hugely popular in mid-range cameras, and made photography a truly mobile activity for the first time. (A Tessar lens is still used on the Nokia Lumia 800 today.) With its small size and outstanding performance it delivers superb images.

There was one final step in the development of the ultimate ZEISS lens – the technique of applying anti-reflective coating to lens surfaces. Applying multiple layers of coating was invented in 1935 and developed from this basis after World War Two, and known as “T✻” (T-star).


A well know Zeiss lens


“Coating is one of the most important inventions in optics,” Mondon says, “Whenever light changes medium from air to glass and then back to air – which can happen as much as ten times in a camera with five lens – you lose light, through stray light and reflections. There isn’t a lens today that is without an antireflective coating.” 


Two Carl Zeiss 


By the time that occurred, however, Carl Zeiss was a different company, in another town. Or rather, two separate companies, in two different towns. 


Top ZEISS scientists had to leave Jena together with the American army, because they did not want to become part of the Soviet-controlled area of East Germany at the end of the war. Those scientists settled in the town of Oberkochen, and re-founded their company. When Germany was divided during the Cold War  – two separate companies operated under the same ZEISS name – one based at the original site at Jena in the then communist controlled East-German DDR, and a new company in Oberkochen in West Germany.

The two companies came together again after German reunification in 1990.

New directions

Carl Zeiss is now leading innovations in microchip production, molecular imaging, medical technology and industrial metrology.


Zeiss moonshot

Mondon demonstrates the gas gun used to turn astronauts around in space so that they can photograph the earth:


“Without ZEISS we wouldn’t even know what the world looks like”. 

Those ZEISS lenses are uniquely constructed to compensate for a vacuum with no oxygen. And on each Apollo mission the astronauts used a Hasselblad camera with ZEISS lenses. Every picture was shot through a ZEISS lens.


New Era for Zeiss

In molecular technology ZEISS has now built a remotely controlled microscope to allow scientists to compare their work together over the internet – and Carl Zeiss medical systems are then often used in neurosurgery as well as ear, nose and throat surgery.

Last year, in 2011, Carl Zeiss also made a major step forward in semi-conductor manufacturing by developing Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography to enable the next generation of microchip production. This will help to make computers,  mobile phones, and many other electronic devices, more powerful and energy efficient.

In 2012 the Academy Award of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Science and Engineering was awarded to two Carl Zeiss engineers. Carl Zeiss design engineer Uwe Weber and his late colleague Dr Jürgen Noffke, who passed away in 2011, were honoured for the mechanical and optical design of the Master Prime cine lenses.


The Master Prime family of lenses combine an extremely high speed with outstanding image sharpness, perfect contrast, and colour fidelity – setting new standards in cinematography.  They have been used  for numerous Oscar-winning films, including The Social Network, The Fighter, and The King’s Speech.


The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which won a total of 17 Oscars, was also shot with a ZEISS lens – and Director Stanley Kubrick used a modified Carl Zeiss lens intended for NASA space missions to make his film Barry Lyndon. He especially used it for the candle light scenes with no artificial light.

So, even if you’re not at the frontier of technology, you can still use the Carl Zeiss lens in your Nokia to take the best photos a phone can produce. That’s what the long history of Carl Zeiss has always been about – accuracy, precision and top image quality, every single time. 

Now see Part 2: How to create a perfect lens with Carl Zeiss

Photographs by Ian Dewsbury