There’s a medium-sized city in Germany called Jena. It’s a college town — the Friedrich Schiller University is there — and in the 19th-century, Jena was home to Schiller, Hegel, Schlegel, and Fichte. The place was a kind of hub for serious mind of the Vormärz period of German history, and young thinkers still tread its charming though hilly streets.

When I visited the city several years ago, I asked around about the local football team and whether it was any good. No, came the reply, but it exists, and it’s called FC Carl Zeiss Jena. Something beeped in my brain at the name — a stirring of memory stored deep down in the archive but never properly labeled — but that was all. I kept on drinking my large German beer. Then, the next night, I was sitting in a bar, with my cellphone on the table. It was one of those late-stage Nokias, pre-iPhone but possessing, among its clunky “smartphone” elements, a camera.

Nokia N8. Public domain.

And there it was. Written around the circular lens on the back of my phone were two words: Carl Zeiss. I’d been carrying the name of this football team around in my pocket for two years. The connection was jarring, in the sense that I felt two cultural phenomena smash against each other in a way that I did not have the narrative tools to process. What could this football team have in common with my cellphone? What was the nature of my memory of the name, and why did it feel so strange to register the words it shared with this terrible sports team?

The story of their connection is an intertwined history of science, capital, national partition, industry, microscopes, and sports. As with the history of aviator glasses, the story follows a little piece of material from one place in culture into another — specifically, from science through war into the kind of consumer product so omnipresent that we barely think about it. The lens seems to gather these little narratives like beams of light refracted through a vase and gathered in a bright spot on the wall, maddeningly hard to grasp but indisputably there.

The London football team West Ham United FC is nicknamed “the Hammers,” but it didn’t get its name by extension of Ham. The team is called the Hammers because it was founded in the 1890s by workers at the Thames Ironworks. In 1903, workers at an optics factory called Carl Zeiss AG also formed a football club. It was once called Fussball-Club der Firma Carl Zeiss, now FC Carl Zeiss Jena.

Left: FC Carl Zeiss Jena’s current logo. Credit: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0. Right: FC Carl Zeiss Jena vs FC Lok Leipzig during 1986–87 season. Credit: Kruczynski/ullstein image via Getty.

The company was then and still remains a leader in the field of optical manufacturing. Photography buffs will recognize the name Zeiss from the lenses it makes, which reliable sources tell me are of very high quality. But the company was founded by a man who knew nothing, at the time, of photography. Carl Zeiss was born in 1816 in Weimar. He moved to Jena in 1834 to apprentice with a fine machinist called Friedrich Körner, a craftsman at the university who made instruments for Goethe. There, under very highbrow auspices, Zeiss studied the manufacture of experimental scientific tools. After some years traveling and adventuring through the engineering scene of midcentury Germany, Zeiss returned to Jena to found a machinist’s atelier in 1846.

Engraving of Carl Zeiss, as published in Felix Auerbach’s book “Das Zeisswerk und die Carl-Zeiss-Stifftung” in Jena, 1907. Public domain — 1923.

Zeiss started out making the kind of apparatus that scientists need, like loupes (a kind of early magnifying device) and thermometers, eyeglasses, telescopes. In 1857, his workshop produced the first compound microscope, meaning that the instrument used an eyepiece and an objective. The objective produces the base magnification, delivering an image of the thing under the microscope to the eyepiece. Then the eyepiece magnifies that image of the thing. This is what makes a microscope a microscope, and Zeiss did it first.

Diagram of a compound microscope. Credit: Fountains of Bryn Mawr/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carl Zeiss in part produced such fine microscopes because he was an obsessive. When an apprentice made a microscope that he found unsatisfactory, Zeiss would place the instrument on an anvil and hammer it into pieces. But his methods were effective, and by the time Zeiss died, in 1888, his company was working with glass chemists to produce new types of optical glass. Their great breakthrough was in what they called the “apochromat,” a new kind of objective that greatly improved the resolving power of the microscope and made it crucially useful to researchers observing extremely tiny things like bacteria.

The Zeiss optical works continued to break ground in the 20th century. The things it produced have beautiful names: The LeChatelier-style metallograph with infinity-corrected optics. Parocalizing objectives. Prototype phase contrast microscopes. (These were used to film the first-ever time-lapse recording of cells dividing.) Advances in Nomarski interference contrast microscopy.

The photo-optics sector of Carl Zeiss was founded in 1890, and in 1902, the company launched its Tessar universal camera lens. During World War I, the optical works began producing military materials, but after the Treaty of Versailles limited armaments engineering in Germany, the company found itself focusing on metrology — the science of exact measurement. In the Nazi era, however, Zeiss returned to producing scopes, gun sights, periscopes, and weapons for the German military. See, for example, these WWII-era Kriegsmarine Zeiss binoculars:

When that war ended with Germany’s surrender, the company split. In punishment for producing German armaments, the U.S. forces occupying Thuringia (the province containing Jena) deported 84 Zeiss personnel to the West, where they formed a new company in 1946 called Optische Werke Oberkochen, and later ZEISS. Meanwhile, the Zeiss that remained in Jena was now under USSR occupation. Operation Osoaviakhim was the USSR’s plan, executed in October 1946, to recruit leading scientists at gunpoint from Soviet-occupied Germany to Russia. One German engineer remembered later that he was woken at 3 a.m. by Russians saying, “Get up! You are being mobilized to work in Russia,” while pointing machine guns at him. By the time they were done with the Zeiss factory, there were only about 600 machines left of the original 10,000. Dismantled and moved far away, the seized Zeiss factory became the Kiev camera works. Deportation split the company in two directions.

There were now two Carl Zeisses. The two enterprises labeled their products differently when they reached each other’s markets. The Western items were sold as Opton in the East and the Eastern products as Zeiss Jena.

The fall of the Berlin Wall changed everything again. Two years after reunification, the two companies approached each other, but tentatively. The people at work in the two Zeisses were deeply hostile to one another throughout their long breach, so lawyers initiated contact. In 1990, individuals from each faction met each other privately and began talks. As the East’s Dr. Klaus-Dieter Gattnar describes his meeting with the West’s CEO, Dr. Horst Skoludek, the pair “literally went into an enclave until we were able to send up white smoke.”

On the Carl Zeiss AG website, several employees recount their memories of 1989. Anita Tobisch, of the personnel department in the East German Zeiss, recalls her great joy at the fall of the wall, but then fear: “What would happen at Carl Zeiss in Jena? Who would keep their jobs?” Some people did lose their jobs and became “almost hostile” to their former colleagues. “That was very disappointing,” Tobisch remembers. “I had always thought that the East and West would integrate much more quickly, but that will apparently take a while after all.”

In 2017, Nokia announced that it was going back into business with Zeiss after a hiatus. Their initial partnership began in 2004, when Zeiss produced cameras for Nokia’s 2005 N-series of cellphones. They made the first-ever smartphone camera with multiple megapixels in the Nokia N90. At the end of February this year, Nokia unveiled the Nokia 8 Sirocco, boasting a Zeiss-made front camera with a 12-megapixel sensor. So far, it’s been priced only for the European market, at €750.

I’m no great expert on cellphones, just a person who has one. Actually, I have an iPhone, and Apple’s camera lens suppliers have been the subject of much interesting controversy. If we delved into the history of Largan Precision or Kantatsu, we’d also find deep historical roots. It’s the invisibility of these devices that appeals to me, the way they contain within their extraordinary lenses a material connection to war, to the scopes on tanks, to Goethe, to overworked optical workers playing football on their days off. A cellphone lens does all this without drawing attention to itself, except in the tiny way that my old crappy phone said Carl Zeiss in tiny letters, just about bold enough to make their way into my memory. I’m fascinated by the way that lens history in the 20th century leads, again and again, to war.

FC Carl Zeiss Jena remains terrible. The team did well during partition, but since the reunification of Germany has never made it out of the second tier of professional footballing there: The team now plays in a league called 3.Liga, the third division. It just lost six-nil to Paderborn. Zeiss plays on.