Astrophysical Journal Obituary of Ernst Abbe

The following obituary of Ernst Abbe appeared in Minor Contributions and Notes, Astrophysical Journal 21 (1915), 379-381. Although no author is indicated, it had the following note:

The editors are indebted to Dr Siegfried Czapski, managing director of the Carl Zeiss Stiftung, for the facts upon which this notice is based, and for the electrotype of the portrait of Dr Abbe.

We give a version of the obituary below.

Ernst Abbe

This distinguished authority on practical optics, to whom astronomical science is in no small measure indebted, died at Jena on January 14, after a long illness.

Born on January 23, 1840, at Eisenach, the son of an employee in a textile factory, his talents early attracted the attention of his teachers; and as a result, to a large extent through his own efforts, he was able to make his way through the university courses at Jena (1857-59) and at Göttingen (1859-61). At the latter university, after studying under Weber and Riemann, he took his degree with a thesis on the mechanical theory of heat. In 1863 he began teaching at the University of Jena as Privatdocent, and in 1870 was appointed extraordinary Professor. For several years he had given assistance to Carl Zeiss, the mechanician at the Jena University, in his efforts in improving the microscope; and in 1875, at the earnest solicitation of Zeiss, Abbe became a silent partner in the firm of Zeiss & Co., the reputation of which rapidly developed. Abbe fulfilled the duties of his chair of theoretical physics and astronomy, besides those of the director of the observatory, until 1889, when at his own request, he was relieved, and thereafter gave only occasional lectures. In 1879 he entered into negotiations with Dr Otto Schott, a practical glass-maker, with a view to the production of new kinds of glass for the requirements of practical optics. In 1882 Schott moved to Jena to devote his time to pushing more rapidly the experiments, which were first begun at Abbe's private expense. In 1884 the Glasstechnische Laboratorium of Schott und Genossen was established by Abbe, Schott, and Zeiss, father and son. Thereafter the financial assistance which had been given for two years by the Prussian government was no longer necessary. After the death of the senior Zeiss in 1888, and the withdrawal in the following year of his son from partnership, Abbe became the sole proprietor of the Zeiss works, but plans which he had had under way for some time finally resulted in the establishment of the Carl Zeiss Stiftung as the sole owner of the optical works and as a partner of the glass works of Schott & Co. In 1891 Abbe transferred to the Stiftung all of his private property, so far as was permitted by law, and retained for himself only the position of a Mitglied der Geschäftsleitung, or director. Interest in his fellow-men was a passion with this university professor and successful business man, as is sufficiently evidenced by his contribution of this opportunity for large personal gain for the benefit of all his fellow-workers. An exceedingly interesting pamphlet of 145 pages, written by Professor Auerbach, of Jena, has recently .been translated into English, and gives an excellent description of the great optical works, together with an explanation of the details of the numerous co-operative features of the Stiftung. Sociologists can find few more successful attempts at co-operation in a great common interest.

The most conspicuous scientific achievements of Abbe were: First, the development of the theory of the microscopic image of non-luminous objects. He published the elements of this theory in 1873, when it was quite contradictory to the prevailing teachings in optics; and he was constantly, though with frequent interruptions, occupied with its development. It was one of his warmest wishes, as well as that of his friends, that after he retired from the active direction of the optical works, he would find the time, so long denied, for a detailed statement of the results of his theory.

We should name as the second achievement in importance the establishment of the technics of the microscope in a rigorously scientific way upon computations involving all the elements, as radii, thicknesses, diameters, distances of lenses, and properties of the glass itself. On account of its difficulty, it was at the time hardly thought possible that this could be accomplished. The same thing had been effected by Fraunhofer for the telescope, and by Seidel and Steinheil for the photographic

In the third place should be mentioned a number of remarkable optical and mechanical constructions, and numerous advances in recognising the true nature of optical instruments. Under the one of these heads should be mentioned the Abbe refractometer, the apparatus for illuminating the microscope (1872), a system of homogeneous immersion (1878-79), the apochromatic lenses (1886), and the prism telescopes; under the other head should be enumerated the foundation of geometrical optics without reference to the means for their realisation, the theory of the path of the rays, the theory of the light-power of optical instruments, and numerous contributions to the theory of errors of definition.

The full extent of the debt owed by astronomy and astrophysics to this university professor, efficient man of affairs, and conspicuous lover of his fellow-men, cannot yet be fairly realised. The microscopes, lenses, object-glasses, and prisms of the still "new Jena glass" are playing a part in the work of every active observatory; and Abbe's broad plan of establishing an impersonal institution which should call to its services the ablest talent in practical and theoretical optics will perpetuate its usefulness to science.

Last Updated March 2021