German researcher Ernst Abbe (1840-1905) is considered one of the first optical engineers (people who create instruments that enhance sight). Abbe's work designing microscopes and lens systems set new standards for the development of scientific optical instruments. Among Abbe's inventions were lenses that corrected blurring and color aberrations (irregularities).
Abbe is best known for his collaboration with Carl Zeiss (1816-1888). Zeiss owned Zeiss Optical Works, a company in Jena, Germany, that manufactured specialized optical instruments. In 1855 Zeiss decided that Zeiss Optical Works should concentrate on building precision tools for the growing research market. Few people at the company, however, had the design knowledge to produce such instruments. Knowing that he would have to get help from outside sources, Zeiss hired Abbe as a consultant.
At the time Zeiss approached him, Abbe was working as an untenured university lecturer. While recognized as being intelligent and industrious, Abbe had been unable to secure a professorial position. Zeiss's offer was very appealing, because it allowed Abbe to make use of his mathematical skills. For the next few years Abbe worked on new lens grinding procedures with Zeiss Optical Works glassmaker Otto Schott, research that resulted in near-flawless lenses. Abbe's work at Zeiss brought him fame and respect in the scientific community. In 1875 he was offered a professorship at Jena University, which he accepted. Abbe was later offered a position at the more prestigious University of Berlin, but he declined the job on order to continue working at Zeiss Optical.
In 1876 Zeiss made Abbe a partner in his company. When Zeiss died 1888, Abbe took over the day-to-day operations of Zeiss Optical Works. For the rest of his career, Abbe both ran the company and established the Carl Zeiss Foundation, an organization for the advancement of science and social improvement.
[See also Microscope, compound ]