Eisenach, Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (now in Germany)
BiographyErnst Abbe's father, Georg Adam Abbe (1813-1874), worked as a spinner but found it extremely difficult to provide for his family. Georg, who was born on 18 August 1813 in Fischbach an der Felda, had married Elisabetha Christina Barchfeldt (1809-1857) on 17 April 1838 in Eisenach. Elisabetha had been born on 29 June 1809 in Eisenach and Georg and Elisabetha had two children, Ernst, the subject of this biography, and Johanna Sophie (known as Sophie), born 28 April 1841 in Eisenach. After Elisabetha Christina died in July 1857, Georg married Eva Margaretha Lindemann (1807-1878) in Eisenach on 17 November 1859.
Glatzer writes :-
As the son of a poor spinning overseer in a mill at Eisenach, [Ernst] had seen the degenerating effect on his father and others of fourteen to sixteen hours of daily toil accompanied by low wages, miserable surroundings, poor food, neglect of family life and education.Kendall, writing in , describes Ernst's childhood in similar terms:-
His childhood was one of privation, his father worked on his feet 16 hours every day with no breaks for meals. Ernst, however, won scholarships and was helped through his studies by his father's employer.These quotes indicate clearly that Abbe's upbringing was the key to understanding his life so let us examine it in more detail. Georg Adam Abbe had been a book printer before his marriage, but then was employed in the Eichel-Streiber spinning mill. This spinning and weaving company had been founded in the 18th century and was Eisenach's first industrial manufacturing company and was the main employer in the town. The Eichel-Streiber family owned the Burgmühle building on the outskirts of Eisenach where some of their workers were housed and the Abbe family moved into the Burgmühle. Life was hard and Georg had to work between 14 to 16 hours each day. When Ernst was five years old he had to take his father his lunch in a box. His father would quickly eat the meal leaning against a machine then, quickly giving the empty box back to Ernst, he resumed his work. When writing of his childhood in later life, Ernst explained how distressing he found it seeing how workers like his father were being exploited.
A picture of the Burgmühle is at THIS LINK.
These bad working conditions were one of the factors which led to revolutions breaking out over much of Europe in 1848. In the German states there was another factor, namely a push for unification. Beginning in the spring of 1848, the revolutionaries were surprisingly successful. Of course, many had different aims and this quickly resulted in serious divisions and arguments among the reformers. By the summer of 1849 the aristocracy was operating a counter-revolution and the Prussian police state began to brutally persecute the revolutionaries in order to destroy their revolutionary spirit. At first Thuringia, the state where Eisenach was situated, did not suffer from the counter-revolution and, as a consequence, many revolutionaries from other states fled there for their safety. Georg Abbe was not a revolutionary, but he was a free-thinker who did everything he could to help those escaping from the Prussian police :-
He hid them in a long, narrow room inside the mill, which could not be easily found and which he had only discovered a year or two earlier. During the repeated house searches, Ernst had to give the refugees appropriate signs to keep them calm. One of them was a leading revolutionary who had to stay for a long time because he was wounded. When the day for his departure came, Ernst had to take him to a remote place that night, where a wagon was waiting for him to continue his journey. This avoided the risk of suspicion if the father had been seen with the stranger and he had been recognised ...Felix Auerbach writes, that seeing persecution by the Prussian police state of those fighting for democratic rights and social progress must have been the foundation of Ernst Abbe's later liberal-democratic and humanistic views and of the fact that he :-
... never quite overcame aversion to Prussia and its state character and, in contrast, increased local patriotism for the Thuringian states in general and Saxony-Weimar in particular.From the age of seven, Abbe attended elementary school in Eisenach. He quickly showed an enthusiasm for learning and considerable abilities, so, after four years, his teachers recommended that he continue his education in the local Realschule, the Grossherzogliche Realgymnasium, which had been founded in 1843 and where mathematical, scientific and modern language subjects were increasingly being taught. Abbe's father, however, thought this would not be possible, since there was no way that he could afford this without financial support. Julius von Eichel-Streiber (1820-1905) was now running the spinning mill where Abbe's father worked, and he said he would support Ernst's schooling on condition that, once completed, he would work for the mill. His studies at the Realschule went exceptionally well, with the school specialising in the subjects that he found most exciting. The headmaster of the school was Dr Gustav A Köpp (1819-1903) who taught mathematics and physics. He was enthusiastic about scientific experiments and ensured that his classroom were well equipped with various pieces of scientific apparatus. From the autumn of 1854, Abbe's outstanding performance led to him receiving a scholarship to cover the school fees. His health, however, had not been good since he was a baby, and he suffered from frequent severe headaches. These would continue to affect him throughout his life.
Abbe showed extraordinary talent, especially for mathematics and natural sciences, and undertook home study, borrowing books to read on Sundays and holidays. From April 1856 he was attending meetings of the Natural Science Association. This had been founded at the suggestion of Carl Eduard Martin (1838-1907), a school pupil in Eisenach, and it was organised by Karl Friedrich Ferdinand Senft (1810-1893), a science teacher at the Grossherzogliche Realgymnasium. We note that Ferdinand Senft published Lehrbuch der forstlichen Naturkunde Ⓣ in 1857. Members of the Association were pupils from the two secondary schools in Eisenach, and it met once a fortnight for lectures and discussions. In October 1856 Abbe gave the lecture "The Origin of the Solar System" and, seven weeks later, "Light and Movement." Abbe held the role of treasurer of the Association from August to November 1856 and from December 1856 until he left Eisenach on 2 April 1857, he worked as its "Librarian and Archivist," a role which greatly appealed to him. During his last year at the Grossherzogliche Realgymnasium, he earned some extra money by giving English and French lessons to some members of his class.
During his final two years at the school his teachers were preparing him to take examinations a year earlier than those of the same age. He used the summer vacation to make up work not covered in the classes, undertaking additional reading and science experiments. He sat written examinations in mathematics and English on 15 September 1856, in French, chemistry and physics on the 16 September 1856 and in German with the essay "Goethe's character and experiences in his youth work" on 17 September 1856. He sat his "Abitur examinations" from 26 February to 21 March 1857 and received "very good" in seven subjects, and "good" in the other three: French, drawing and religion.
In at least two ways Abbe was very lucky in being able to go continue his studies at university. One of these was the fact that the Weimar government only brought in a regulation to allow top Realgymnasium pupils to attend a university on 17 December 1856. The second piece of luck concerns the agreement that Abbe's father had made with Julius von Eichel-Streiber that Ernst would work at the mill after his secondary education. Even before he took his "Abitur examinations", von Eichel-Streiber had agreed he would not insist on the agreement. It is probable that Gustav Köpp, the headmaster, had approached von Eichel-Streiber on Abbe's behalf, for we certainly know he thought very highly of his outstanding pupil.
Abbe entered the State University of Jena, his "local university" in the Grand Duchy of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach, after Easter 1857. The university teacher who influenced him most was Christian Philipp Karl Snell (1806-1886) who taught the use of infinitesimal analysis in geometry, analytic geometry of the plane, analytical mechanics, optics, and the physical foundations of mechanics. He was also taught by Hermann Karl Julius Traugott Schaeffer (1824-1900) who instructed pupils in analytic geometry, applied physics, algebraic analysis, and was interested in the telegraph and other electronic devices. Abbe also attended lectures by the botanist Matthias Jacob Schleiden (1804-1881) and the paleontologist Ernst Erhard Friedrich Wilhelm Schmid (1815-1885). At Jena there were two students who had been fellow school pupils at Eisenach with Abbe, namely Carl Martin, whom we mentioned above, and Ludwig Pfeiffer (1842-1921) who shared an apartment with Abbe during his final two semesters at Jena. At Easter 1858 he made the acquaintance of a somewhat older student, Heinrich Eggeling from Helmstedt.
The head of the University was Karl Julius Moritz Seebeck (1805-1884) who wrote supporting Abbe for a government prize on 3 September 1858 (see ):-
Abbe's work would be particularly satisfactory for the competent faculty member, although Abbe is only a student in his third semester and is in no way supported by external means. His teachers assure me that he was undoubtedly born to become a professional scientist.As an undergraduate in Jena, he won several prizes and also made some extra money by private teaching.
The Mathematical Society at Jena was run by Hermann Schaeffer and Abbe presented the lecture "Inductive proof of the equivalence of heat and work in permanent gases" to the Society on 3 June 1858.
Unhappy with the teaching at Jena, Abbe left the University of Jena on 15 May 1859 and, on the advice of Karl Snell, continued his studies at the University of Göttingen. There he attended courses by Bernhard Riemann, Wilhelm Weber and Moritz Stern, although he described Stern's lectures "quite dry." He was also taught by the astronomer and meteorologist Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm Klinkerfues (1827-1884) who had been Gauss's assistant at the Göttingen observatory where, advised by Gauss, he had written his Ph.D. dissertation Über eine neue Methode die Bahnen der Doppelsterne zu berechnen Ⓣ (1855). In Göttingen Abbe had difficulties with his living expenses :-
The housing and living conditions in Göttingen were noticeably more expensive than those in Jena, but, apart from scholarships, he managed to acquire the necessary larger funds partly through private lessons to domestic and foreign students, and partly through solving prize problems.Advised by Wilhelm Weber, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on thermodynamics entitled Erfahrungsmässige Begründung des Satzes von der Aequivalenz zwischen Wärme und mechanischer Arbeit Ⓣ and, after being examined on 16 March 1861, he received the degree from Göttingen on 23 March. He had made a trip to Jena at the end of September 1860 and had discussed with them his wish to habilitate there at Easter 1863. It was a requirement that there had to be an interval of at least two years between the doctorate and the habilitation, so he had to find employment for two years. He was offered a position in Frankfurt am Main.
The Physical Association in Frankfurt was wanting to appoint an assistant, and Abbe, while still in Göttingen, had travelled there on 24 May 1861 to give a trial lecture on the following day. Unfortunately he had a very severe headache on the day of the lecture and had to postpone it until 29 May. The board could not come to a decision about appointing him and told him he would have to wait until the following year. The appointment in Frankfurt was still open to him, and, after taking a summer holiday in Eisenach, he began lecturing on Thursday evenings and on Sundays. The appointment at the Physical Association never came about, however, and he worried about having sufficient income. Gustav Köpp, his former headmaster, came to his rescue with some work for him.
Ernst Abbe arrived in Jena on 18 April 1963 after a period devoted to the preparation of his habilitation thesis in his father's house in Eisenach, and was immediately greeted in the most friendly manner by Karl Snell. He presented the 20-page Über die Gesetzmässigkeit in der Vertheilung bei Beobachtungsreihen Ⓣ for his habilitation thesis. M G Kendall, see  or , writes:-
O B Sheynin has recently called attention to a most remarkable paper by Ernst Abbe, presented in 1863, in which Abbe derives not only the distribution, but R L Anderson's (1942) distribution of the serial correlation coefficient. ... The paper is a superbly competent piece of work and perhaps the most remarkable anticipation of later studies of distribution theory that have yet come to light.The first years that Abbe spent teaching as a Privatdocent at the University of Jena are described in :-
In 1863, Abbe habilitated at Jena (with a study of error distribution in experimental data and the method of least squares) and so became a Privatdocent there. His lectures, at least in his first years, were usually attended by only one or two students, and by never more than a dozen; he was a poor lecturer. Though he initially taught several different types of courses in both mathematics and physics, he later came to limit his lecturing to particular aspects of optics. His laboratory course in experimental physics, by contrast, proved more successful; during various semesters he attracted around seventeen students. During his first years of teaching, Abbe had only the most primitive, outdated instruments at his and his students' disposal; and his so-called laboratory was, in fact, a mere shed, which served until 1880 when it collapsed during the course of a visit by the zoologist Ernst Haeckel! The material problems of teaching experimental physics at Jena only added to Abbe's burden of a heavy teaching load. In a letter of 1863 to his close friend Harald Schütz, he discussed his course on the theory of measuring instruments and in so doing revealed the handicaps of teaching physics at Jena:Over these first few years Abbe had to spend most of his time organising his teaching and, as a consequence, had little time for research. In fact he published nothing between 1863 and 1870. It is not surprising, therefore, that his application, in 1869, to be promoted from a Privatdocent to an Extraordinary Professor was rejected. In the following year, however, he published Über einen Spektralapparat am Mikroskop Ⓣ. Felix Auerbach writes about the spectral eyepiece that Abbe describes in this work :-
"But then came the experiments. At first I scarcely reckoned with them because the physical cabinet has almost no noteworthy measuring instruments with which I could have demonstrated. I soon saw, however, that a theory of measuring instruments, one so completely abstract and without accompanying demonstrations of the apparatus described and without practical exercises, is something damned boring, and that I would earn little approval for my lecture course if I could not join practical demonstrations to it. ... Day after day I have thus had to worry about the work of constructing or having constructed new demonstration apparatus. Moreover, this needs to be done as quickly as possible if it is to fit into my current lecture course. ... You've never been concerned with physical experiments and so you have no idea of the time and trouble it costs when one is supposed to put together a tolerable piece of apparatus with such inadequate resources and with one's own hands."
With simple resources, it enables the microscope to be used for spectroscopic observations; it represents a significant improvement on an older construction of the same type. Without going into the details, one thing should be noted: namely, that the report on this apparatus made in 1870 was Abbe's first publication in Jena; and at the same time that the device is the first real new construction produced by the Zeiss workshops on the basis of Abbe's ideas.This excellent paper was a factor in his appointment as extraordinary professor of physics and mathematics at Jena in 1870; this meant he had the financial security to marry. On 24 September 1871 he married Marianne Elisabeth Snell (known as Else), the daughter of Karl Snell, head of the physics department at the University of Jena, and his wife Anna Voland (1815-1846). Else Snell (1844-1914) had been born in Jena on 14 September 1844. Else and Ernst Abbe had two daughters: Margarete Abbe (1872-1945) and Pauline Abbe (1874-1945).
In 1878, he was appointed director of the astronomical observatory at Jena and of the meteorological observatory at Jena. Abbe had been approached by Carl Zeiss in 1866 with various optical problems. This had turned his attention towards optics and astronomy. In addition to his university posts, Abbe was made research director of the Zeiss optical works in 1866. In 1868 he invented the apochromatic lens system for the microscope. This important breakthrough eliminates both the primary and secondary colour distortion of microscopes.
Other optical advances which Abbe made include a clearer theoretical understanding of limits to magnification and the discovery the Abbe sine condition, as it is called today, which gives conditions on a lens for it to form a sharp image, without the defects of coma and spherical aberration. The famous formula, which first appears in a paper of 1873, give the resolution limit of the microscope as
.He also made practical improvements in microscope design including, in 1870, the use of a condenser to give a high-powered even illumination of the field of view. The Carl Zeiss Foundation describes Abbe's work at this time as follows:-
One year after beginning the manufacture of the Carl Zeiss compound microscope, in 1873, Herr Abbe released a scientific paper describing the mathematics leading to the perfection of this wonderful invention. For the first time in optical design, aberration, diffraction and coma were described and understood. Abbe described the optical process so well that this paper has become the foundation upon which much of our understanding of optical science rests today. As a reward for his efforts Carl Zeiss made Abbe a partner in his burgeoning business in 1876.The obituary  in Minor Contributions and Notes, Astrophysical Journal 21 (1915), 379-381 gives further information about his work on optical instruments; see THIS LINK.
Becoming wealthy through his optical work and a partnership with Zeiss, Abbe set up and endowed the Carl Zeiss Foundation for research in science and social improvement in 1891. The Carl Zeiss Foundation describes its setting up as follows:-
This foundation established a new group as the owners of Carl Zeiss. The greater portion of the assets were deeded to the University of Jena, whose Department of Education managed the universities interests. This authority was bound by a set of statutes drawn up by Abbe himself, after studying sociology and law for two years. The balance of the estate was donated to the employees of Carl Zeiss.Abbe introduced industrial relations changes into the Zeiss optical works in 1896 which today sound commonplace but were many years ahead of their time. These included an eight hour working day, holiday pay, sick pay and pensions. We quote from Hilda Weiss the important advances that Abbe made as a social reformer :-
"Eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, eight hours to be a human being," was the slogan under which Ernst Abbe introduced the eight-hour-day in the Zeiss Optical Factory in Jena, Germany in 1900. Abbe, the founder of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, was a social reformer and philanthropist. He recognised early the fact that, even under very favourable social and working conditions like those established at his factory, the working man was still mostly a worker, very little a man, a human being. Even highly qualified work of mechanical precision had to undergo more and more the specialisation process of division of labour and mechanisation. To be a human being was considered by Ernst Abbe as a rightful demand of the industrial worker; ...Abbe stopped teaching at the University of Jena in 1891. After a long illness, he died in January 1905 at the age of 64. He was buried in the Jenaer Nordfriedhof, the North Cemetery of Jena. His wife died on 1 February 1914 and was buried beside her husband.
Abbe studied the effects of mechanisation of labour which separated the workers from their tools and the development of corporations which separated ownership and control. The result of his research proved loss in the individual's pride in his work, loss of traditional human relations between master and worker and between fellow workers. In his factory he introduced a good and stable minimum salary guaranteed to every worker, which was increased by (a) a supplement according to the individual output as a production bonus and (b) a Christmas bonus signifying a sharing in the profits of the enterprise. The right to a pension was attached to the basic salary. A housing project was established, not owned by the factory but by a co-operative agency of the workers. The factory foundation, together with the University and the city of Jena, set up a variety of educational and recreational facilities that assured the workers pleasant social conditions and an extremely high standard of living. A workers' committee served as an example of workers' rights for German labour legislation. Foreseeing the bad effects of mechanisation of industry, Abbe suggested to other employers and to the State that a substantial part of industrial profit should be used to improve the economic and social conditions of the workers; greater security should be given by a pension and profit sharing plan, and by severance pay; workers' committees should establish greater social recognition and participation in management responsibility.
The Ernst Abbe Memorial was dedicated in June 1911 :-
On June 30, 1911, was dedicated the Ernst Abbe Memorial. The American Microscopical Society as one of the prominent contributors to the undertaking was invited to send representatives, but owing to the shortness of the time could not be represented. The monument was designed by Henry Van de Velde and adorned with reliefs of Constantin Mennier; it also contained the marble bust of Abbe which is the work of Max Klinger. The structure is a noble memorial to one to whom we owe primarily the greatest improvements in the effectiveness of the microscope as an instrument of research, which have been added to it for more than a century.You can see a picture of this Ernst Abbe Memorial at THIS LINK.
The Carl Zeiss Foundation set up an Ernst Abbe Memorial Prize in September 1921:-
The Carl Zeiss Foundation in Jena occasionally announced to the German Mathematicians and Physicists Conference in Jena (September 1921) the foundation of an Ernst Abbe Memorial Prize to promote the mathematical and physical sciences and their areas of application. Every two years the interest of 100,000 marks for outstanding achievements in the above-mentioned areas is to be awarded according to the proposals of specialist committees. However, this amount due can be increased in each individual case by a special resolution of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, since the provision is made that the capital itself can be used up over the years. An Ernst Abbe Memorial Medal is to be added to the award, which shows the portrait of Abbe, the founder of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, on the one hand, and the merit of the recipient on the other.
- S L Greitzer, Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990). See THIS LINK.
Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- F Auerbach, Ernst Abbe. Sein Leben, sein Wirken, seine Persönlichkeit (Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1918).
- R Braunholz and O Petschauer, Die schriftlichen Reifeprüfungsarbeiten von Ernst Abbe (1840–1905) in den Fächern Mathematik und Physik, Wiss. Z. Pädagog. Hochsch. Erfurt/Mühlhausen Math.-Natur. Reihe 25 (2) (1989), 156-176.
- J Z Buchwald, Scientific Credibility and Technical Standards in 19th and early 20th century Germany and Britain: In 19th and Early 20th Century Germany and Britain (Springer Science & Business Media, 2012).
- Dedication of the Ernst Abbe Denkmal, Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 30 (4) (1911), 327.
- S Demel, Auf dem Weg zur Verantwortungsgesellschaft. Ernst Abbe und die Carl Zeiss - Stiftung im deutschen Kaiserreich (Wallstein Verlag, 2014).
- Ernst Karl Abbe, in Carl W Hall, A Biographical Dictionary of People in Engineering. From earliest records until 2000 (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN, 2008).
- Ernst Abbe: Minor Contributions and Notes, Astrophysical Journal 21 (1915), 379-381.
- S M Feffer, Microscopes to Munitions Ernst Abbe, Carl Zeiss, and the Transformation of Technical Optics, 1850-1914 (University of California, Berkeley, 1994).
- I Glatzer, A Successful Social Reformer, Ernst Abbe, 1840-19, The Economic Journal 23 (91) (1913), 329-339.
- G Hahn, Ernst Abbe als Sozialpolitiker, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft / Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 63 (1) (1907), 133-138.
- G Jahn, Review: Ernst Abbe, by Moritz von Rohr, Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik / Journal of Economics and Statistics 152 (6) (1940), 717-720.
- M G Kendall, Studies in the History of Probability and Statistics. XXVI: The work of Ernst Abbe, Biometrika 58 (1971), 369-373.
- M G Kendall, Corrections and Amendments: Studies in the History of Probability and Statistics. XXVI. The Work of Ernst Abbe, Biometrika 59 (2) (1972), 498.
- M G Kendall, The work of Ernst Abbe, in M G Kendal and R L Plackett (eds.), Studies in the History of Statistics and Probability II (London, 1977), 331-335.
- R Kingslake, Review: Carl Zeiss und Ernst Abbe: Ihr Leben und ihr Werk, by Harald Volkmann, Technology and Culture 9 (2) (1968), 235-236.
- S Paetrow and W Wimmer, Carl Zeiss. A biography 1816-1888 (Zeiss Archives, 2016).
- J Pierstorff, Review: Ernst Abbe. Sein Leben, sein Wirken, seine Persönlichkeit nach den Quellen und aus eigener Erfahrung geschildert, by Felix Auerbach, Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik / Journal of Economics and Statistics 59 (114) (2) (1920), 168-170.
- A Prey, Review: Ernst Abbe. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Universität Jena, by M von Rohr, Monatshefte für Mathematik und Physik 49 (!30) (1941), 234.
- T Pütz, Ernst Abbe und die Gegenwart, Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik / Journal of Economics and Statistics 141 (2) (1935), 159-172.
- M von Rohr, Ernst Abbe. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Universität Jena (G Fischer, 1840).
- J Rumpeltes, Review: Auf dem Weg zur Verantwortungsgesellschaft. Ernst Abbe und die Carl Zeiss - Stiftung im deutschen Kaiserreich, by Sebastian Demel, VSWG: Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 102 (2) (2015), 200-201.
- F Schomerus, Review: Ernst Abbe, by Felix Auerbach, Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv, 15 (1919/1920), 440-442.
- E Seneta, Modern probabilistic concepts in the work of E Abbe and A De Moivre, Math. Sci. 8 (2) (1983), 75-80.
- W Stelzner, Ernst Abbe und Gottlob Frege, in Frege in Jena, Jena, 1996 (Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 1997), 5-32.
- J Volkmann, Ernst Abbe and his work, Appl. Optics 5 (1966), 1720-1731.
- H Volkmann, Carl Zeiss und Ernst Abbe: Ihr Leben und ihr Werk (Oldenbourg, 1966).
- H B Ward, M Pflaum and R H Wolcott, Report of the Committee on the Ernst Abbe Denkmal, Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 29 (1) (1909), 71-72.
- H Weiss, Human Relations in Industry: From Ernst Abbe to Karl Mannheim, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 8 (3) (1949), 287-297.
- J Wittig, Ernst Abbe. Biographien hervorragender Naturwissenschaftler, Techniker und Mediziner 94 (B G Teubner, 1989).
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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update March 2021
Last Update March 2021