Concentrated product history on a few square meters. (Images: Ralf A. Niggemann)
Concentrated product history on a few square meters. (Images: Ralf A. Niggemann)

Leica Microsystems

Vivid History

The history of Leitz and later Leica Microsystems has been documented in comprehensive records and collectors’ items. The archive will now be transferred to the Hessische Wirtschaftsarchiv (Economic Archives of the State of Hessen) in Darmstadt. Rolf Beck takes a look back at the past and ahead to the future.

There are not many companies that can claim to have written technological and economic history. Leitz is definitely one of them, and the archives of today’s Leica Microsystems GmbH are accordingly valuable. Here we find Rolf Beck, working in the midst of files and notebooks, slipcases and document cabinets.

W3+: People call you a born Leitzman. How much is fact and how much fiction?

Rolf Beck: Well, it’s true that I worked for Leica Microsystems from the time of my apprenticeship at Leitz to well past retirement age. That’s over 60 years. But my fascination for optics goes even further back than that. My great-uncle had a Magic Lantern and used to project color pictures on the wall on special occasions. I must have been five years old at the time. I wanted a Magic Lantern like that for Christmas. And my wish was granted: I really did get my own Magic Lantern and was even able to project films with it. In the war we were bombed out and my beloved instrument was destroyed by fire. That was a great loss for me. So a few years later, at the age of twelve, I made a Magic Lantern myself – using a candy tin as a lamphousing and various toy lenses I had found. I still have it at home today.

W3+: So your path into the optics industry was already charted?

Rolf Beck: My father was a self-employed sales rep for a world-famous Swiss chocolate maker. He would have liked to see me step into his shoes. But my mother noticed my technical bent. It was she who drew my attention to a newspaper advertisement by Ernst Leitz GmbH; they were looking for apprentices for various trades. I applied and was invited to take a test in November 1954 which I passed. That’s how I began my apprenticeship as technical sales clerk.

W3+: So Leitz was your first choice?

Rolf Beck: At that time there were many good reasons for joining and staying with the Leitz company. Leitz was an extremely popular employer in our region and far beyond. Not only because of its excellent reputation as a manufacturer of top-quality optics, but also due to the remarkable backing of the family and its social commitment to its workforce. I had the good fortune to experience Ernst Leitz II in person in my early days at the company. He was an inspiring figure, not only for a young apprentice like me.

W3+: What did an apprenticeship as technical sales clerk entail?

Rolf Beck: There were office clerks at Leitz who worked in the accounting department, for example. The technical sales clerks were trained for global sales, with the emphasis on technical training. We spent the first two years in the mechanics apprentice workshop and in the assembly and adjustment departments. During my apprenticeship alone, I assembled twenty complex Leica cameras that were sold. That is to say, we knew all the products inside out.

W3+: So you were able to apply this expertise in various positions in the company.

Rolf Beck: That’s right. My first job was in the export department. Prior to that I had improved my French during a year’s stay in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, on release from Leitz at my own request. I worked in Paris for a year, supporting the sales rep of the time in technical matters and traveling in France selling microscopy and photography products. I continued to be “on call” for the German sales organization – I particularly remember working for Leitz Hamburg.
Later I had full responsibility for worldwide sales of forensic optics for many years. My clients included the Bundeskriminalamt, the FBI and Scotland Yard. That was naturally an interesting and exciting business – after all, our company has a 100-year global track record as a classic provider of such instruments. Wherever I went, the good name of our products got there before me. That always reminded me of the importance of the origin and tradition of our brand for our products.

W3+: Does that explain your special interest in the history of Leitz and Leica?

Rolf Beck: I guess so. My motto is: The future’s all in the provenance. History is an integral part of a company and creates trust in its brand. So it’s extremely important to collect and file everything of significance to company history. There has not always been such a strong awareness for this. In several phases of history, Leitz documents, sketches, designs or mock-ups were just thrown away, because they were considered worthless at that time. Luckily, views have changed.

W3+: You’ve been officially in charge of the archive since 2000, but you actually began before that, didn’t you?

Rolf Beck: Because of my fascination for optics I’ve been collecting microscopes and other optical instruments more or less all my life, whether in private or as part of my job. During my long career at Leitz and later Leica Microsystems, I accumulated quite a lot. But let’s not forget that the history of the Leitz company dates back to the year 1849 – if you take into account the actual founder Carl Kellner. And the history of the Leitz family reaches even further back than that. The two histories are intertwined and the sources of information correspondingly extensive, ranging from product documentation to cash journals, or from Carl Kellner’s account books to the bible of the Leitz family with its handwritten note on the first pages: “At 10 o’clock on the morning of April 26th, 1843, our son Ernst was born.”

W3+: An archive of these dimensions demands detailed research. But it also draws its lifeblood from surprising discoveries.

Rolf Beck: Yes. The great challenge is to tell or at least reconstruct events as they really happened. That’s not as easy as you might think. Just take the countless articles and reports on Oskar Barnack’s invention of the 35 mm camera, for instance: every expert seems to have his own version of events. It’s similar with microscope history, which goes far back into the 19th century. Beyond that, we have always kept an eye on the so-called “competitive environment” as well. For example, a household clearance in our extended family brought to light, quite by chance, a microscope by Oberhäuser from the year 1845. At the time, Oberhäuser was one of the leading microscope manufacturers on the continent.

W3+: Were the collections and the archive material split up when the company changed hands in the Nineties?

Rolf Beck: The archive was indeed split up. A decision, I couldn’t understand. If you take a close look at the history of the Leitz company, you realize that this separation is unsustainable. After all, all the companies and products that still have Leica or Leitz in their name have the same roots and were always closely connected in the past. On this level, we have maintained close contact – particularly with Günter Osterloh, who looks after the Leica Camera archive with great commitment and specialist knowledge. It’s important in this context that the Leitz family is very much involved in the history of the company, too. For them, it’s inextricably linked to the history of their family, of course.

W3+: What value does the archive have for you?

Rolf Beck: The monetary value is impossible to define. The sentimental value is much more important – not only for me, but for society as a whole. For this reason, the history of Leitz and Leica Microsystems is to be made available to experts and interested members of the public in the Hessische Wirtschaftsarchiv. After all, it’s vital to keep adding to the archive and working with it. That’s what keeps company history alive.

W3+: Belonging to the company for over 60 years, you are now part of company history yourself. Is it hard for you to hand over the archive?

Rolf Beck: No, not at all. The staff of the Hessische Wirtschaftsarchiv will treat the documents and archive material with expert care. The collection of historical microscopes is also being handed over to the HWA for administration, but will still be on display in the New Townhall Wetzlar. I’m more than willing to assist and advise if I’m needed. Therefore, I can assure you that the archive will continue to be in the best of hands.


Additional Information:


Rolf Beck in the Leica Microsystems Archive.
Rolf Beck in the Leica Microsystems Archive.