Ernst Abbe – Brilliant Engineer and Courageous Social Reformer

Ernst Abbe
(1840 – 1905)

On January 23, 1840, German physicist, optometrist, entrepreneur, and social reformer Ernst Abbe was born. Together with Otto Schott and Carl Zeiss, he laid the foundation of modern optics. As a co-owner of Carl Zeiss AG, a German manufacturer of research microscopes, astronomical telescopes, planetariums and other optical systems, Abbe developed numerous optical instruments.

Abbe was born in Eisenach in 1840 and was lucky to be financially supported by his father’s boss, who guaranteed him a modest education. The young Abbe was talented in nature sciences wherefore he was able to attend the University of Jena and the University of Göttingen. After studying, he was occupied at the observatory in Göttingen and later began his career in physics at Frankfurt and Jena. He became director of the observatory of Jena and a member of the ‘Academy of Sciences’.

In 1866, Carl Zeiss, back then the university’s mechanic, invited Abbe to help him constructing a scientific microscope and after some difficulties at the beginning, both engineers were able to critically improve the microscopes they built and from then on, Ernst Abbe began his career as Zeiss’ partner. However, next to the partnership with Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe also became famous for his publications in thermodynamics, mechanics and various theories on optics. Abbe constructed the very first refractometer, he was responsible for developing the ‘Abbe number’ and defining the term ‘numerical aperture’ as well as for the discovery of microscope’s  resolution limits.

Abbe’s work with Carl Zeiss not only made him famous, but also wealthy. After Zeiss’s death, Abbe founded the Carl Zeiss Foundation and became highly active in concerns of social and political issues. He supported the social democrats, introduced the 8 hour working day and supported the freedom of assembly. Abbe depicted one of the founders of a newspaper, attempting to distribute politically independent news, wherefore he was loved by his employees as well as the general public of Jena.

Ernst Abbe was appreciated as a brilliant engineer and a courageous social and political reformer in Germany. He was honored numerous times through monuments, the lunar crater ‘Abbe’ was named after him and the Ernst Abbe Foundation was developed. He passed away on January 14, 1905 in Jena.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the video lecture ‘Optical Instruments‘ by Jerzy Wrobel.

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