Some Thoughts on Optical Institutions

Carl Zeiss Workshop outdoors in the 1850s. From Zeiss and Photography by L J Gubas

Toronto.An optical institution was a German optical workshop turning out various optical devices and lenses. Other countries used other names.

As cameras and binoculars and microscopes became popular,  brands like Zeiss, Zeiss-Ikon, Leitz, Ross, Bausch & Lomb, Rochester Optical, Kodak, Krause, Polaroid, Nikon, Canon, etc. became known world wide.

Before photography arrived (1839), the institutions made such things as eye glasses, opera glasses, binoculars, microscopes and telescopes.  The raw glasses of the day were basic varieties and tended to vary in optical characteristics depending on how well the molten mass was mixed. Some batches were contaminated as material in the crucible leached into the molten glass. And some glasses were less clear than others – no big deal when used in thin windows or tiny lenses.

Lens design was by trial and error. As the industry matured, two strategies gave impetus to significantly improved lens resolution and repeatability: scientific calculation replaced the trial and error method of lens making, and the need for optical glass was realized and perfected. Glasses were made with repeatable consistent characteristics and little or no contamination in the crucible.

For example, Carl Zeiss brought in people like professor Ernst Abbe who used mathematics to calculate glass characteristics for ideal lens elements, and Paul Rudolph who designed lenses like the Protar series and the wildly successful Tessars. Zeiss also collaborated with glass maker Otto Schott who was willing to experiment to make glasses that met the design criteria created by Abbe. The result was the famous and widely used “Jena glass” listed in Otto Schott’s catalogue.

Other optical makers made a similar leap to scientific methods and Jena glass or its equivalent and the world of optical instruments and lens manufacture never looked back. Today, the lenses in our cameras are taken for granted to be as sharp and clear as necessary. No longer do we need to pay extra for names like Zeiss or Leitz around the lens to get decent results, but of course for really great results…

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