History of optics: Rathenow, the city of optics
The history of the optical industry in Germany is closely linked to the history of the Duncker family from Rathenow.
Essentially, three members of this family, Johann Heinrich August Duncker, his son Eduard Duncker and later his nephew Emil Busch, have helped shape the beginnings of the optical industry in Rathenow and throughout Germany.
The founder of the optical tradition was the preacher of St. Mary's Andrew Church, Johann Heinrich August Duncker (born 14.1.1767 - 14.6.1843). After graduating, he took office at the church in Rathenow. Partly as a hobby, partly to earn am extra income, Duncker decided to put his knowledge of optics into practice in Halle.
Duncker received the royal privilege to operate an optical industrial facility.
Since Duncker was a preacher, it was initially forbidden for him to trade, therefore he had to ask the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III for permission.
On 10th of March 1801 he received the royal privilege to operate an optical industrial institution. On the same day, he filed a machine’s patent to polish lenses, designed by him.
It supplied evenly surfaced lenses for loupes, microscopes and spectacles. His first workers were disabled soldiers and orphans, who therefore received a wage and allowed them to make a living.
The production rooms were located on the floor of his birthplace, the vicarage at Kirchplatz 12.
Duncker was supported by his business and financial partner, Samuel Christoph Wagener. Duncker headed the technical production and Wagener was responsible for sales.
The family business developed
Until the war in 1806/1807, the company developed continuously with several branches opening throughout Germany. The first catalogue was issued in 1803.
After the economically difficult years of 1806-1815, the company expanded further so that new manufacturing rooms were rented in the so-called "preacher-widow houses". In 1820, his son Eduard (1797-1878), took over the management of the "Optical Institution" particularly in the commercial field. Under his leadership, the production range and sales expanded. The company finally established its headquarters on October 4, 1834 with the purchase of a corner house No. 5 in Berliner Strasse. However, the constant increase in production associated to the lack of space forced Eduard Duncker to provide machines to his workers so that they could produce lenses at home. It developed the typical business model for Rathenow, so called "laundry rooms".
On 1st April 1845, after 26 years, Eduard Duncker handed "the optical industry institute" to his nephew Emil Busch (1820-1888), who had been already active in the enterprise since 1840.
Under his leadership, the medium-sized company became a large-scale factory.
Several optical plants in Rathenow
In 1896 there were 163 optical companies in Rathenow. Even at that time Rathenow had earned the reputation as a "City of Optics". The company "Nitsche & Günther" developed into the second largest and
best known company, especially in the field of spectacle lens production.
20th century: Rathenow becomes the center of the optical industry in the GDR
World War I and the subsequent global economic crisis hampered further development in the optical industry. Most of the workforce was called into the army, contacts with foreign partners became difficult and
the lenses were mainly produced for the army.
In the post-war period, devaluation led to extensive restrictions, layoffs and bankruptcies in the optical industry.
Nevertheless, in 1930 (there existed) over 200 optical companies existed in the city of Rathenow.
During World War II, the two major companies from Rathenow were fully involved in arms production. Civilian lenses production was severely restricted by official orders.
After the Second World War, large and medium-sized enterprises of the optical industry in Rathenow were either expropriated or they left the city. The company Nitsche & Günther, which was expropriated in
November 1945, was used to found a new company named "Rathenower Optical Werke GmbH" in March 1946. On the 1st July 1948 it became, with the involvement of Emil Busch AG, the state-owned enterprise Rathenower Optical Works (VEB ROW).
In 1950, 1.860 workers were employed. In 1966 the company was placed under the control of the Carl-Zeiss-Jena conglomerate. In addition to this large-scale operation, the remaining private companies were able to continue their production until 1958. The state governed economy of the GDR organised the concentration of the many small enterprises and in March 1958, 45 of the 72 remaining optical companies merged into the large Holding PGH "JHA Duncker".
From 1972, the new entity was classified as a national enterprise.
The merger of the two major optical companies resulted in 1980 in the VEB Rathenower Optical Works "Hermann Duncker". Until 1989, this company with approx. 4,420 employees was the sole manufacturer of spectacles in the GDR.
After the wall came down, new innovative companies were created in Rathenow, including OPHTHALMICA Brillengläser, which began its production in May 1992 with 8 employees.
21st Century: Rathenow is “the City of Optics” and is the center of optical technology in Germany
Even in the 21st century Rathenow shows that it is an important location of the optical industry in Germany. Companies such as Fielmann and smaller dynamic companies such as OPHTHALMICA Brillengläser, Solira, Obrira, Scharnbeck, Askania Microscope together with the education and technology center for Ophthalmics from the Berlin Brandenburg region ensure that there is a large pool of well-trained skilled workers in the optical industry in Rathenow.