Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Tale of Two Zeiss's

As promised in my Mycena News article, the story of how their came to be two Zeiss companies during the Cold War and what that means in terms of buying older Zeiss scopes. Its a rather intriguing bit of history.

There were several Zeiss companies after the Second World War, two of which manufactured microscopes. (There was also Zeiss Ikon, which made camera lenses.) This was the result of the race on the part of the Soviets and Americans for German technical, industrial, and scientific know-how and infrastructure following Germany's defeat.

At the end of the war, Jena, which had been the headquarters of the Carl Zeiss corporation from its beginnings, was occupied first by American troops, but was later claimed as part of the Soviet Occupation Zone in 1946. In response, the Americans stripped the Zeiss corporation of much of its technical equipment, documents, and patents, and evacuated 86 of its top scientists and officials to Oberköchen in the American Zone. Equipment and documents were supposed to be brought along as well and used to establish a new company, but much of this never reached Oberköchen and was instead taken to the US.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Zone, the Soviets carried out a similar move vis-a-vis the remainder of Zeiss' infrastructure and staff. Soviet policy demanded that Germany pay reparations to the Soviet Union in the form of material and expertise. In practice, this meant entire factories were stripped of their equipment, which was hauled off to the Soviet Union. Scientists and technical experts were also taken to the Soviet Union by persuasion or force. In the case of the Carl Zeiss staff and equipment, they were taken to Leningrad and used to set up the Soviet state microscopy firm, Lomo. (Lomo is still in business in modern Russia and is generally considered to be a very good "second tier" microscope company.) After a few years in the Soviet Union, the Zeiss staff were rapatriated to Jena.

What took place then is that two "Carl Zeiss" companies emerged, one in Oberköchen and another East German state corporation in Jena. Both companies continued to call themselves "Carl Zeiss", and much to the chagrin of Zeiss Oberköchen, the East German company continued to stamp the historic "Carl Zeiss Jena" label on all of its products. This status quo was maintained for many years, with the two companies competing in the microscopy business. By the end of 1950s, Carl Zeiss Oberköchen had reestablished much of the reputation and historic continuity of the historic Carl Zeiss company. Carl Zeiss Jena had less of a reputaiton for quality, especially for entire microscope systems, however, they continued to be competive in the area of components, which were made to be fully compatible with western Zeiss scopes.

Soon after German reunification in the early 1990s, Zeiss Oberköchen bought out Zeiss Jena, reuniting the microscopy divisions of both companies, and moving the microscopy division back to Jena, where it remains to this day. Zeiss Jena, however, had diversified into a number of technological areas not originally associated with Zeiss, at the behest of East German central planners, in large part because they wanted Zeiss to create high-tech equipment that were largely not manufactured in the Eastern Block. Carl Zeiss let go of these divisions, which became a company called Jenoptik, which no longer manufactures microscopes.

So what does this mean in terms of buying used microscopes? Basically, it means that one needs to be careful to distinguish the different Zeiss companies, becuase sellers don't always make the distinction. The website Zeiss Historica provides a rather useful guide to the alphabet soup of Zeiss companies and offshoots, though unfortunately, they leave out the more modern "ZEISS" logo found on Zeiss Oberköchen products from the 1960s onward. The logo "Carl Zeiss Jena" indicates either a pre-1945 or East German product. A logo that says "Zeiss Opton", "Carl Zeiss", or "ZEISS", typically with "Germany" or "West Germany" underneath is Zeiss Oberköchen. There was also briefly a "Zeiss Winkel" logo used in the mid-1950s after the merger of the Rudolf Winkel microscope company into Zeiss Oberköchen.

Postwar Zeiss Jena scopes and components, while less common than the West German ones, are still found for sale today. Zeiss Jena compound scopes are quite distinctive from West German Zeiss scopes, the 1970s Zeiss Jena scopes being true nightmares of modern industrial design. Zeiss Jena objectives are also pretty distinctive, often having a rather distinct simple one-piece and elongate shape compared to West German Zeiss objectives.

In terms of quality, Zeiss Oberköchen scopes of the 1960s to 1980s are of excellent build and optical quality, and often still in excellent shape to this day, even with minimal maintenance. I expect many such scopes will stay in use well into the 21st Century. Zeiss Jena scopes I've read mixed reviews of – I'm told that the build quality is not to as high of a standard and in some cases, metal components have begun to lock up. Then again, some people really like them. As for Zeiss Jena objectives, I've never seen them compared side-by-side with Zeiss Oberköchen objectives, so I can't say how the quality compares. Zeiss Jena objectives are not uncommonly found on Zeiss West Germany scopes from the same generation, in fact, the scopes I was trained on at the first lab I worked at at University of Washington had just such a setup. From what I remember, these lenses gave good clear images and nice phase contrast, though I really had nothing to compare them to at the time. I also have heard good things about high-end apochromat lenses from Zeiss Jena, and that they were of good quality and at the same time bargains compared to Zeiss West Germany apochromats. (Note: I've just read that Zeiss Jena condenser's are not compatible with Zeiss West Germany scopes, at least, not without special machining to make it fit the characteristic Zeiss West dovetail mount.)

Its also important to keep in mind that even within the Zeiss Oberköchen line, lens quality varied quite a bit over time, being much better in the 1970s than it had been in the 1950s. I discovered this the hard way, after buying an old Neofluor phase contrast 40X/0.75 NA objective for my scope. It was from, I believe, the 1950s, having a seven-digit serial number and a "Carl Zeiss/Germany" label on it (as opposed to a six-digit label and simple "ZEISS/West Germany" logo of later objectives). Comparing this to a 1970s/1980s simple achromatic 40X/0.65 NA lens, I found this the more modern yet entry-level lens to have better sharpness and resolution, and stronger phase contrast as well, on both a dry condenser and a high-end 1.4NA oil-immersion condenser. Needless to say, I'm wary of buying 1950s-era Zeiss lenses anymore.

If you want to know more about Zeiss history, besides the Zeiss Historica society site, there's a good page on the "History of optics at Jena" which gives a good overview. Also, Zeiss Jena vs Zeiss Oberköchen was used as a test case by a couple of economists who ask, "Did Socialism Fail to Innovate?". Their conclusions are rather interesting. Finally, the book Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945-1990 (partly readable online) gives a really fascinating history of Zeiss Jena during the Nazi and Communist periods, and how the collegial culture of Zeiss responded to regimentation and heavy Stasi infiltration during the East German period.