Larry Gubas

Larry began his love for Zeiss in 1968 when he acquired his first Zeiss-Ikon camera, a 1930s model Ikonta D folder for ten dollars. Currently a prime force in the Zeiss Historica Society, His work includes producing the ZHS Journal and web site. Zeiss Historica is unique in that it addresses the entire range of Zeiss products not just the photographic apparatus.

His talk highlighted the history of Zeiss and Zeiss Ikon from inception to modern times emphasizing the personalities that shaped the companies and the very significant contributions made by Zeiss to both the optical industry and to modern business practices.

CARL ZEISS, born at Weimar in 1816 to a well to do family, completed a classical education, before apprenticing as an instrument maker. He became a fine mechanic, and in 1846 he took over his master's business, establishing the firm of Carl Zeiss, Jena which made various instruments for the universities. At the time, optics was a trade not a science. Some firms did well and some did not. Carl Zeiss, Jena did not start off well. It was clear to Zeiss that he needed to do more than continue making simple microscopes and magnifiers to expand his business. His solution was to hire someone who could complement his personal skills. After a few misfires, he made a brilliant choice, hiring a young man named Ernst Abbe.

ERNST ABBE's field was measuring instruments; his desire to become a professor. His lack of training in optics gave Abbe an unbiased mind. In 1867, five years after beginning in optics he figured out how microscopes 'see' at high magnification, defining his famous sine theory, astounding his contemporaries and putting optics on a firm scientific foundation.

CARL ZEISS faced bad economic times in the mid 1800s. He had few employees and made only about 20 microscopes per year. He took on apprentices (unpaid during the apprenticeship) and imbued them with his passion for quality. He sold a third of his business to Abbe (paid for by Abbe's father-in-law). The firm slowly expanded, reaching a production of 1,000 microscopes per year. Abbe began speaking to scientific groups all over (nothing was patented at the time). He encouraged industry standardization such as adopting the RMS thread. By the 1870s a quarter of the Zeiss production was exported.

OTTO SCHOTT from a family of window glass makers, added the next ingredient to the mix. He responded to a search by Abbe for new glass to fit his optical equations. At the time Zeiss was unwilling to expand the business since it was doing well. Abbe continued dealing with Schott and encouraged him to move to Jena. Since Abbe didn't have the funds and Zeiss wouldn't assist at the time, Abbe came up with a solution.

KARL BAMBERG, who had studied under Zeiss and Abbe, had a good rapport with the Prussian Military. He convinced the Prussian government to fund half of the cost of a new glass business in return for a solution to making accurate thermometers. Schott provided the government with a glass that didn't retain cold/heat thus solving the problem. Optical glass from the new Schott glass works, owned jointly by Schott, Zeiss, and Abbe led to the creation of apochromatic lenses (lenses that simultaneously focus three colours in the same plane).

PAUL RUDOLPH created many famous Zeiss lenses including the Anastigmat (later called the Protar) and the Tessar. Zeiss now in his 80s began hiring more highly educated people like Rudolph. Abbe founded a school to train staff in the manufacture of microscopes. In 1911, Rudolph resigned to live off his royalties as a gentleman farmer, only to be sent back to design military optics when the Great War broke out.

RODERICH ZEISS took over the firm after his father died. Disabled from an accident, he turned operation of the firm over to Abbe. Within twelve years, the staff increased from 200 to over 2,000 and Zeiss was making 40,000 photographic lenses a year. Initially, manufacture was farmed out to Voigtlander until Zeiss could gear up to meet the demand.

CARL-ZEISS-STIFTUNG was created by Ernst Abbe. As Abbe got older, he became concerned about future management of the business and in a stroke of genius he established a foundation to own and direct the business separate from its management. The Carl Zeiss Foundation established many modern day business practices: Eight hour days, medical coverage, profit sharing, and a policy to limit the highest paid salary to no more than seven times to lowest paid. By 1905 when Abbe died, the firm was making a wide variety of optical instruments including microscopes, binoculars, photographic lenses, range finders and military systems, and an astronomical department had just been established.

LICENSING was another smart decision by Zeiss. The first Zeiss cameras date back to 1898. In 1903 Rudolph's Tessar lens was announced. It became the most popular and most copied photo lens (this year is the 100th anniversary of its invention). Zeiss sold lenses to other camera makers. Before 1913, countries used high tariffs to protect national industry. To avoid duties and encourage sales, Zeiss selected companies in other countries and licensed them to manufacture Zeiss products (Bausch & Lomb, Krauss, etc). After the Great War, Germany was blocked from making any potential military goods so Zeiss set up a plant called Nedinsco in the Netherlands. They also bought up many small companies as the owner-operators died or retired (Winkel, Hensoldt, Emil Busch, etc).

ZEISS IKON was formed in 1926 becoming the world's largest camera company. After the Great War, industry consolidation began in earnest. Four companies were combined to form Zeiss Ikon. The new firm faced a massive product consolidation task - over 1,000 camera models all of different construction. Models were combined, dropped and sold off. The first new model was a cheap starter camera with a lens similar to the 1840 Petzval design. By 1930, the 127 film Kolibri with a fast Tessar lens (Bio-Tessar) was expected to be a major camera model. However, it had technical problems - the design did not hold the film flat in the film plane.

EMANUEL GOLDBERG who had worked for Zeiss and its subsidiary Ica, took over Zeiss-Ikon. He was very inventive (developed microfilm and microdot concepts). In 1932, forced to leave by the Nazi regime, he moved to Zeiss in Paris and in 1937, on to Israel.

HEINZ KUPPENBENDER was a young engineer who joined Zeiss Ikon shortly after it was founded. Zeiss was caught unprepared when the 1924 Leica took off and established the new 35mm miniature camera market. A competing camera became a priority for Goldberg and Küppenbender was given the task of working out the technical details under his direction. The famous Contax was to be a system camera better in most respects than the Leica. A working model was shown at the 1932 Leipzig fair to selected dealers. Manufacture was planned for a few years later but fate stepped in. The working model was stolen at the show.

THE CONTAX was rushed into manufacture. As a result, the early cameras (there were eight versions of the first model) didn't work well. Many failed and were returned to be remanufactured with a letter appended to the original serial number. Whereas Leitz continued to modify and improve the same basic camera to create new models, Each new Zeiss Ikon camera was a totally new product. The 35mm cameras made very little money, but the techniques developed for them were applied to the larger film models which were cheaper to make, easier to sell, and more profitable. After 1939, no new cameras were developed. All 35mm cameras were made in Dresden where the factory was staffed by Jews and prisoners during the war. Zeiss had 20,000 staff at the time.

SPLITTING UP. In the post war split of Germany, the American military managed to move key staff, plans and a rare camera lens collection to Stuttgart in the Western zone. The military then sent the plans and lens collection to the USA (The lens collection was looked after by Burke & James in Chicago for many years, then sold off as war surplus and scattered to the four winds). Russia took all the machinery, inventory, and many employees from Jena, Berlin, and Dresden back to Russia.

STUTTGART. Leitz and Rollei were ready to begin production as soon as the war ended. Voightlander quickly bought the available stock of Schott optical glass. Zeiss Ikon had to start from scratch which they did by making folders since that was the line it previously made at Stuttgart. The Ikonta and Super Ikonta models were made first using left over parts from Jena. The first lenses were not Zeiss made. It took a few to years to roll out the Contax. In 1949 the Contax S was produced using a traditional cloth shutter rather than the metal version originally specified by Goldberg.

KUPPENBENDER took over as head of the West German Zeiss Ikon company, but none of its post war camera designs succeeded. They were 'behind the curve', shutter driven designs making use of the products from two leaf shutter makers Zeiss owned. The Contaflex, its top line 35mm SLR camera was popular, but no effort was made to add a rapid film advance, auto return mirror etc. to compete with newer cameras. Voigtlander was purchased in 1956 - another bad decision that led to ten years of internal competition. For example, an excellent Voigtlander design was turned down since it wasn't a Zeiss Ikon design, while the heavy, awkward, over-designed Contarex with its heavy lenses continued to be made.

ZEISS IKON last made a profit in 1954 and by 1971 it succumbed to the Japanese competition and ceased manufacture. Zeiss made a deal with Yashica for brand name use and over time dropped the manufacture of photographic lens while continuing to do lens design.

TOGETHER AGAIN. Zeiss is still in good shape today, having merged its east and west German operations. It continues to make exotic measuring devices, microscopes in Jena, binoculars in Wetzlar (old Hensoldt plant) and Planetariums in Jena. I enjoyed hearing* Larry tell the story of this amazing company, one of the few companies from early 1800s era of German optical works to survive.

*I was unfortunately unable to attend the presentation in person due to an urgent family matter. I listened to a recording of the talk to create these notes and added a few images from Zeiss promotional material which of course are not the ones shown during the presentation. The portrait of Larry Gubas and the group shot are courtesy of Robert Lansdale.

Bob Carter

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