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The Entrepreneur Ernst Leitz I

April 26th 2013 is the 170th anniversary of the birth of Ernst Leitz I (1843–1920), who turned a small optical workshop in Wetzlar into an optics company of world renown. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ernst Leitz Optical Works rapidly became one of the leading suppliers of microscopes and optical products. An exhibition in Wetzlar’s New Town Hall looks back on his life and the milestones of his work.

His business skills and his outstanding commitment to his employees and society in general made Ernst Leitz I a sovereign in the best sense of the word: He really was a person who “stood above it all” – not because he disregarded everyone else, but because we simply have to take our hats off to this exceptional personality whose work and actions are far greater than the general notion of a lifetime achievement.


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It’s a compelling gaze. The alert eyes of the man in the portrait define the image of a confident and resolute entrepreneur. It is no less a person than Ernst Leitz I. The artist, Georg Tronnier, based his painting on a photograph that bears the date “New Year 1911”. So Ernst Leitz I was nearly seventy years old at the time. Yet he certainly doesn’t seem to have grown weary with age and there are no signs of impending retirement.

The young entrepreneur

The achievements that earned Ernst Leitz I the status he had acquired shortly before his seventieth birthday are just as immeasurable now as they ever were. In 1864, the trained mechanic came via Neuchâtel to Wetzlar, where he was taken on as a journeyman in Friedrich Belthle’s “Optical Institute”. With the savings of his parents and his own competence, Leitz was able to save the small business from certain demise. He became a partner and, after the death of Friedrich Belthle, owner of the workshop, which traded under the name of “Optical Institute of Ernst Leitz” from then on. At this time Leitz was 27 years old. The young entrepreneur seems to have been endowed with technical and commercial skills from the start. However, the innovation power that drove him and ultimately turned the workshop into an enterprise with an international reputation is unsurpassed.

The exhibition for the 170th anniversary

Knut Kühn-Leitz, meanwhile over seventy himself, never fails to be amazed by his great-grandfather’s strong and irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit. He feels all the more forced to limit himself as regards to the exhibition in Wetzlar’s New Town Hall to mark the 170th anniversary of the birth of Ernst Leitz I. When we meet up for an interview, the preparations are already in full swing. Together with the Leitz experts Rolf Beck and Günter Osterloh, exhibits are being brought together and accompanying texts formulated. “We have agreed that the exhibition, besides celebrating Ernst Leitz’s birthday, should commemorate the milestones of microscopy that the company and Leitz as a person stand for,” says Knut Kühn-Leitz.

Looking back to the first Leitz microscopes

From the very beginning, Ernst Leitz I himself was the driving force behind the technical and optical further development of the microscope, never losing sight of the technological possibilities and needs of his time. The 19th century was the century of science. Two particularly pioneering achievements were Robert Koch’s discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus in 1884 and Friedrich Löffler’s discovery of the diphtheria bacillus in the same year. The further science advanced into the research of microorganisms, the higher the demands on microscopy. Rolf Beck sees this as a key to success: “Ernst Leitz was particularly keen to use his close contacts to his customers to realize innovations that made his company a trendsetter in microscopy.” 

Against this background, Leitz developed the so-called “Stativ I” that was launched in 1876 and became a model for many following generations of microscopes due to its trailblazing technical design. The most striking innovations were the cast lead horseshoe base and a joint between the base and the body tube and specimen stage. There was also an objective nosepiece to allow swift magnification change.

Apart from these technical and ergonomic innovations, the greatest challenge of the microscope optics was to increase visibility in the micro range with powerful illumination systems. Remember that in the days before electricity microscopists only had daylight or petroleum or gas lamps to work by – until Leitz introduced carbon arc lamps to replace daylight at the turn of the century, considerably enlarging the application potential of the microscope.

High-performance objectives and the patented reflecting condensor

At the same time, Leitz and his foremen worked flat out to improve the optical performance of the microscope objectives to keep pace with scientific developments. Apochromatically corrected objectives led to a significant increase in image resolution. Besides the dry objectives, water and oil immersion objectives were introduced that brought improvements in image definition, particularly at high magnifications. The oil immersion objective “1/12 Oil” that was launched on the market in 1885 became one of the most successful Leitz objectives.

In 1907 Leitz presented a high-resolution darkfield illumination based on a bicentric reflecting condenser. It showed up extremely small living and unstained objects, such as the syphilis bacillus, bright against a dark background. The novel technique was patented. Its centerpiece, a reflecting condenser developed specifically for this purpose, became the first trademark of  “E. LEITZ WETZLAR” in 1913.

The first binocular microscope

That same year in which Ernst Leitz I celebrated his seventieth birthday, his son Ernst Leitz II played a pivotal role in another pioneering development: the world’s first fully functioning binocular microscope. Proposing a prism system design that could physically split the light beam into two exact halves, he commissioned Felix Jentzsch, associate professor at Giessen University and research assistant of the Leitz works, to put his idea into practice. The new binocular microscope was introduced in 1913, precisely a hundred years ago.

The many research scientists and laboratory assistants who spent several hours every day at the microscope welcomed the new binocular microscope with open arms. “It was an unparalleled triumph,” says Knut Kühn-Leitz. “Very soon, no doctor or scientist wanted to look through the microscope with only one eye any more.” After all, viewing with one eye was tiring. Not only that, monocular microscopy sometimes led to observation errors and even visual impairment due to using one eye more than the other. With the new binocular microscope, Leitz had given scientists an instrument that revolutionized their work in many respects due to its homogeneously illuminated and significantly more expressive images. It was also designed for the use of all objectives including the most powerful oil immersion objectives. Above all, however, binocular viewing was much more comfortable and healthier in the long term.

Entrepreneurial vision makes a global player

In view of this large number of highly specialized innovations, it is all the more surprising that Ernst Leitz I was an entrepreneur and initiator who always saw the whole picture rather than only focusing on individual aspects. Or, to use the same metaphor, his eye was never glued to the precision x/y stage of a microscope, his far-sightedness is more reminiscent of the visual field of a wide-angle objective. Besides biology and medicine, he ventured into new application fields such as geo sciences and mineralogy or industrial microscopy. The expansion of the microscopic instrument portfolio that seems almost inevitable and logical from today’s point of view often led to reservations and sleepless nights at the time. Under these conditions, Ernst Leitz I introduced the first sledge microtome in 1881 for making thin sections of objects or specimens for the transmitted light microscope. In 1885 he launched the first polarized light microscopes for geological and mineralogical examinations.

The “Große Stativ A” of 1919 in turn was the world’s first modular microscope. Due to a large number of perfectly matched microscope components, every user was able to configure the instrument of his choice; the modular principle even made it possible to convert a biological transmitted light microscope into a polarized light or metallographic microscope. When you think how today’s marketing strategies praise the virtues of individualization and flexibility, it is clear that Ernst Leitz was way ahead of his time in this respect, too.

The same applies to the company’s status as a “global player”.  Ernst Leitz I realized early on the importance of selling and exporting microscopes on a world-wide scale. Leitz established its first foreign subsidiary in New York in 1893. Other subsidiaries followed in Chicago, London und St. Petersburg. The first foreign agency had already started business in Finland in 1891. Nowadays, the fact that Britain made German manufacturers indentify their products as “Made in Germany” from 1887 to warn customers of inferior imported goods raises a wry smile in view of the high international reputation enjoyed by technology standards of the Leitz company.

An outstanding lifetime achievement

Apart from the quality of the products, Ernst Leitz attached great importance to satisfying the growing demand with high-quality industrial manufacturing facilities. He replaced handcrafted individual manufacture by the so-called job shop principle. This means that a sub-assembly or microscope is no longer made and assembled by a single person. Instead, the work steps are performed by specially trained and qualified staff. A further production spurt was achieved in 1883 by the use of a central steam engine, from 1894 a steam turbine.

In the course of these developments Leitz managed to increase its annual production of microscopes from 350 to 4,000 – more than ten times the amount – between 1881 and 1900.  At the turn of the century, Leitz had sold 55,000 microscopes, making it the largest manufacturer of microscopes in the world. By 1912, annual production had risen to nearly 12,000 microscopes. 

These figures alone show that such a business success story is unique in Germany and beyond. It is an uncontested fact that Ernst Leitz I has written industrial history. However, the picture of this confident and resolute entrepreneurial personality would be incomplete without mentioning his human virtues. In 1885, he set up an additional welfare fund for his employees and their families that provided support in special emergencies; in 1899 he donated a fund for invalids, widows and orphans. And let’s not forget that he introduced the eight-hour working day in 1906, twelve years before it became statutory.

His business skills and his outstanding commitment to his employees and society in general made Ernst Leitz I a sovereign in the best sense of the word: He really was a person who “stood above it all” – not because he disregarded everyone else, but because we simply have to take our hats off to this exceptional personality whose work and actions are far greater than the general notion of a lifetime achievement.

Ernst Leitz I
"Vom Mechanicus zum Unternehmer mit Weltruf“

April 26 – June 14, 2013

New Townhall
Ernst-Leitz-Strasse 30
35578 Wetzlar, Germany