The Rise of Zeiss: From the Microscope to the Moon Landing

The Zeiss company branding is synonymous with the field of photography today, but that’s not where Carl Zeiss started. In this 25-minute video, DW Documentary goes through the company’s incredible history.

Back in 1846, the goal was to create a microscope to aid in combating disease, and in the 175 years since, the company has weathered global pandemics, two world wars, and even a geopolitical standoff that literally split the company in two.

All the while, Carl Zeiss Optics has not only grown into a global optical powerhouse, but it has literally reached for the stars while doing it.

The epic tale of the founding of Carl Zeiss company, and its road to optical perfection, is told in a documentary by Ralf Schneider. Schneider starts at the very beginning, telling the tale of Carl Zeiss opening a small optics shop in Jena, Germany.

Via Joe Lin | Creative Commons

Zeiss kept his company afloat selling eyeglasses, while he worked on a precision microscope with a physics lecturer from a nearby university.

After a few months of trial and error, Zeiss had his first working microscope, but it was the research by his physics partner, that precise calculations of optics were achievable, that resulted in Zeiss’ business being transformed into a scientific company.

At his passing in 1888, Carl Zeiss was a legend in the field of optics. Through his approach of recruiting young, talented researchers, and scientific precision, the company he founded continued to break new ground.

Telescopes inside the Zeiss museum of optics
ZEISS Microscopy | Creative Commons

Shortly after the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, the company expanded to include astronomical devices, photographic lenses, and a return to eyeglasses. But the core was an expanding portfolio of microscope designs.

Dark times followed, as two world wars pushed the company into providing armaments for German and in 1945 the company was literally split in half after the fall of Germany. The US whisked away 77 of Zeiss’s top employees to West Germany, along with most of the company’s blueprints, while the Soviet Union transferred machinery and 275 employees behind the iron curtain.

The result was Zeiss West and Zeiss East who soon ended up competing against one another in a reflection of the Cold War, which led to a collaboration between Hasselblad and Zeiss to create the cameras and lenses which captured the iconic pictures of Apollo astronauts setting foot on the moon.

The Soviets would soon follow with multispectral cameras developed by Carl Zeiss Jena, the Eastern Block variant. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the two companies merged back together into one, and are now a dominant global optical corporation.

Zeiss is still expanding with the development of computer semiconductors, which are now driving microscopy, even beyond the optical spectrum.

But Zeiss optics will always be part of the company structure, with every picture taken. Be it a tiny, one-cell organism, or an image of the moon from deep space.