Carl Friedrich Zeiss was born in Weimar on 11 September 1816 as the fifth of 12 children. Here, he attended the local high school up to the penultimate class, where he passed a special graduation exam enabling him to study natural sciences at a university. The young Carl Zeiss showed a keen interest in technology.
At Easter 1834, he began an apprenticeship with the mechanic and private lecturer of the University of Jena, Dr. Friedrich Körner (1778-1847). From the second year of his apprenticeship onwards, he was allowed to attend one lecture in science and mathematics per semester at the university. When he finished his apprenticeship with Körner in 1838, he received excellent references and a certificate for all the lectures he had attended at the university. Subsequently, Zeiss spent seven years (1838-1845) as a traveling tradesman, with stops in Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Vienna and Berlin. In Vienna he went to lectures in mechanics and passed his final exam with distinction.
From November 1845, Zeiss was once again registered as a student at Jena University and took part in lectures on mathematics and chemistry. From 17 November 1846, he opened his own busienss. Initially, he designed, built and repaired all possible chemical and physical instruments by himself and, at the same time, sold telescopes, microscopes, drawing apparatus, scales, thermometers and other devices that he purchased from dealers. In 1847, Zeiss began to produce simple microscopes. Business got off to a good start, allowing Zeiss to employ his first assistant in the spring of 1847 and move into larger premises on 1 July 1847. In August 1847, he hired August Löber as his first apprentice who was subsequently to become his most important employee and was later given a participating share in the firm’s profits.
From 29 May 1849, Carl Zeiss married the 11 years younger Bertha Schatter, who died during the birth of his first son, Roderich Zeiss, on 23 February 1850. Roderich Zeiss survived and later joined his father’s business. Zeiss married for the second time on 17 May1853, this time Ottilie Trinkler. Three further children were born during his second marriage: his son Karl Otto (1854-1925) and the two daughters Hedwig (1856-1935) and Sidonie (1861-1920). Carl Zeiss lived very modestly and invested the money he earned in the business. He devoted his free time to gardening (he was particularly fond of roses) and to books.
Zeiss focused his production activities on microscopes. In his workshop, he attached central importance to quality and precision. He destroyed any microscopes his staff made that did not meet his high requirements with his own hands on the anvil. In 1861 Carl Zeiss received a number of awards such as, for example, the first prize of the 2nd Thuringian Industrial Exhibition and a silver medal for his “excellent microscopes and their accessory devices”. In 1863, Zeiss was appointed to the position of court mechanic at the University of Jena.
1866 saw the start of his collaboration with Ernst Abbe with the goal of placing the production of objective lenses on a solid mathematical foundation. From 1872, only lenses produced in line with Abbe’s calculations were sold. The success of these lenses led to the growth of the business. The 3000th microscope was produced on 14 October 1876. In the same year, Roderich Zeiss joined the business and became a partner in 1879. In 1880 Carl Zeiss was awarded a doctorate (Dr. phil.h.c ) from the faculty of philosophy at Jena University.
To this very day, the entrepreneur Carl Zeiss, together with Ernst Abbe, are seen as pioneers of social insurance: the Zeiss health insurance scheme was founded in 1875 in order to guarantee employees free medical treatment and medication in the event of illness. Zeiss’ collaboration with Otto Schott, who developed and later produced new types of optical glass in Jena, commenced in 1882.
In December 1885, Zeiss suffered his first stroke, from which he never recovered. From his 70th birthday in 1886, his condition constantly deteriorated and, after further strokes in the last three months of 1888, he passed away in Jena on 3 December 1888 .