Biography of Ernst Ruska



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Mankind has come a long way since the dark ages in the field of science and medicine. We have seen many great inventions and discoveries that have helped shape our lifestyle. The electron microscope was one such invention which helped scientists and medical practitioners detect deadly diseases and viruses. The electron microscope helped scientists detect differences between the virus that caused smallpox and the virus that caused chicken pox. Today the electron microscope continues to be an integral part of many laboratories helping researchers to examine biological materials, medical biopsy samples and the characteristics of various surfaces. However, due credit should be given to the man behind the invention of this great apparatus. That man was none other than Ernst Ruska.

Ernst Ruska came from a humble family whose intellect surpassed other children his age. Boisterous and full of life, Ernst went on to create history when he collaborated with Dr. Max Knoll to invent the world’s first electron microscope. So what drove Ernst towards the complex field of mathematics and science? What were the difficulties he had to face before becoming the man who today is known as the father of microscopes? Let us go back in time and explore the journey of Ernst Ruska and witness firsthand his rise to glory.


It was a typical cold morning on 25th December 1906 in Heidelberg, Germany. Julius Ruska and his wife Elisabeth welcomed a beautiful baby boy into their family. Elisabeth had tears of joy as Julius gently caressed the baby with affection. The baby was christened Ernst Ruska by the proud parents.

Ernst’s father, Julius was a professor, a passionate botanist and a mineralogist who had the big Zeiss microscope kept in his study. For an innocent child like Ernst, the microscope seemed very unique and strange. Ernst was fascinated by this strange looking artefact and wanted to see it in person. However, his father strictly forbade him to touch the microscope. But, like all children, this only heightened Ernst’s curiosity. Ernst’s father noticed the keen interest his son showed towards the microscope. So, he would take time off his busy schedule and show Ernst magnified objects with the invention. Ernst’s uncle was in charge of an observatory on a hill overlooking Heidelberg. As a result, Ernst would often visit the observatory to meet his uncle and see the telescopes in action.

After graduating from school, Ernst wanted to study engineering but his father, Julius was not too happy with the decision. Julius was very judgemental of his son’s decision to become an engineer. “How could the son of a Professor choose an inferior educational path?” thought Julius. However, Ernst was adamant about his decision to study engineering and got himself enrolled at the Technical College in Munich in the autumn of 1925 and later moved to Berlin.


Ernst was extremely energetic as a student and began involving himself in studying high voltage and vacuum technology at the institute of High voltage under the tutelage of Adolf Matthias. Sometime around the end of the summer term in 1928, Mr. Matthias formed a small team to develop a high-performance cathode ray oscilloscope. When Ernst heard of Mr. Matthias’ plan, he jumped at the opportunity and joined the small team created by Matthias becoming the team’s youngest member. The team was headed by Ernst’s classmate called Max Knoll who was an electrical engineer.

Ernst noticed that the cathode in the oscilloscope emitted a beam of electrons which could be used to form a dot or a writing spot on a fluorescent screen. But, the beam emitting from the cathode was unstable. Ernst and his team put all their energies into improving the cathode and sharpening the focus of the electron beams. During their research Ernst came across an article in a journal called ‘Archives Elektrotechnic’. The article was written by a professor named Hans Busch. In the article, Busch stated that the short coil present in the cathode generated a magnetic field that made stimulated electron particles behave in the same way as light when it passed through a convex glass lens. Ernst remembered his childhood and realised that the same type of lens was found in his father’s microscope.

Unfortunately, Busch was unable to bring his brilliant theory to practical use due to unavailability of newer data. However, Ernst was fascinated by Busch’s theory and decided to make it a part of his thesis which he submitted in his graduate years in May 1929 at the age of 23. In his thesis, Ernst calculated the characteristics of the magnetic coil. He tested whether it could actually be used to unite electron rays and focus on a target. He was successful in his approach and with the use of the coil; he managed to gain the first recorded electron ocular images of the anode orifice of the cathode ray tube. Ernst was elated to say the least. He had just brought Busch’s theory to life! An accomplishment which even Busch was unable to achieve!


Ernst had an innovative outlook towards his profession. Yes, he was successful in obtaining images but his main agenda was to create an electron microscope. However, it wasn’t an easy task. In 1930, at the age of 24 Ernst tried to create a cheaper version of this experiment as part of his diploma thesis but failed to come through. So, Ernst went back to his original idea of using coils as lenses. Using two coils, Ernst managed to build a tube similar to the microscope. Ernst tested the apparatus for the first time and noted that the magnification factor of his unique invention was a mere 15 units. Even though the magnification of the apparatus was far lower than what Ernst had expected, he had managed to prove to his peers that it was possible to obtain magnified images using electron beams and magnetic fields.

One day while working on developing the apparatus further, Ernst noticed that the electrons in the machine emitted a huge quantity of heat. The heat was destroying the objects that were being viewed by Ernst through the machine. Ernst was a bit disappointed with this outcome. There was no use of creating modestly magnified images when the objects in view could be burnt to ashes.

Thus, Ernst along with colleague Bodo von Borries and Max Knoll ventured on building a new and efficient microscope. However, Ernst knew that in order to impress the scientific society, his microscope would have to be better than the current light microscope which was being used.

During the process of constructing his very first electron microscope, Ernst noted that the trick to compressing the magnetic field to a tiny area relied heavily on the shape of the coil. The coil had to be designed in a way that the focal length could be kept as short as possible. Keeping the focal length short was a must so that the apparatus could obtain images with high magnification.

To achieve this, Ernst and his colleague Bodo constructed a coil cocooned by iron with a small gap in the center which helped to compress the magnetic field. Ernst and Bodo named their coil the “pole shoe lens” and had it patented in 1932. Finally after a year of thorough research and sleepless nights, 27 years old Ernst and his colleagues built the first electron microscope in 1933. Unlike Ernst’s previous invention which had a magnification factor of merely 15 units, this new microscope had a magnification factor of a humongous 12000 units. Finally, after years of research and dedication, Ernst finally managed to achieve his dream.


The feat of inventing the first ever electron microscope in the world should have brought joy to Ernst. But, on the contrary Ernst wasn’t too happy as he couldn’t convince the industry to invest in the production of his microscope. The problem of overheating the objects under the lens of the microscope was still a major concern.

Ernst noticed that the electron microscope would mostly be utilized by biologists. He also realised that the vacuum tube present in the microscope dehydrated the specimens and the electrons damaged them. On most occasions the heat generated burnt the specimen to ashes. Ernst was in a fix as he was unable to come to a solution to this particular problem. He turned to his younger brother, Helmut Ruska for assistance.

Helmut Ruska was a medical practitioner with a positive attitude. He was sure the microscope would work if certain improvements were made. As a result, Helmut approached Richard Siebeck who was the director of the medical clinic at the Charity Hospital. Richard was also Helmut’s former medical professor and so, he managed to convince Richard to invest his time and effort into his brother’s invention.

Richard was initially reluctant but after 3 years on 2nd October 1936, Siebeck praised Ernst’s invention and explained how the microscope could help doctors in analyzing the cause of diseases. He credited Ernst by stating that the microscope was capable of advancing research into identifying infectious agents that caused diseases which on paper seemed similar to each other. Diseases like measles, smallpox, and chickenpox seemed to have similar symptoms but Richard knew that the infectious agents causing the diseases were different. And he backed Ernst by stating that the microscope would be helpful in distinguishing the agents.

Richard Siebeck’s testimony was enough to convince industries and companies to take the financial risk and and invest in developing electron microscopes. A renowned company called ‘Siemens’ hired Ernst and Bodo von Borries in 1937. Together Ernst and Bodo began work on producing microscopes. In late 1939 Siemens delivered the first series of microscopes branded “Siemens Super Microscope” to the laboratories of I.G. Farben in Frankfurt-Hochst.

Ernst was eager to make his instrument famous all over the country. So in order to promote his invention, he suggested to the CEOs of his company Siemens to set up a visiting institute so that biologists and doctors could carry out their research using his microscope. The Institute of Electron Optics was built in 1940 when Ernst was 34 years old. Ernst along with German and foreign scientists managed to publish around 200 scientific papers from the institute by 1944. Ernst was obviously involved in the development and mass production of the electron microscope.

Following the Second World War which proved to be devastating for Germany, the Institute of Electron Optics was disbanded. As a result production of microscopes had come to a halt. The demand for the instrument was huge and so in order to meet the demands of his customers; Ernst reconstituted the institute.


In order to further develop the microscope, Ernst began working at the German academy of Sciences in Berlin from August 1947 to December 1948. In 1949, at the age of 43 he was made the head of department at the Fritz Haber Institute. After spending almost 20 years at Siemens, Ernst left the company at the age of 49 in 1955. After two years at the age of 51, Ernst was made Director of the institute of electron microscopy at the Fritz Haber Institute on 27th June 1957.

In 1960, Ernst’s contribution to the field of medical science was acknowledged when he was awarded the Lasker Award. Ernst spent the 1960s serving as Director at Fritz Haber. He also held lectures at the Technical University of Berlin and Free University where he would talk about the basic principles of electron optics and electron microscopy. On 31st December 1974 at the age of 68, Ernst stepped down as Director and officially announced his retirement. In 1986, 80 years old Ernst received the Nobel Prize for his contribution to science. 25th May 1988 was a gloomy day in West Berlin. 82 years old Ernst Ruska left the world peacefully. He was cremated in West Berlin.


Even though Ernst left the world, his invention of the electron microscope continues to help biologists and medical practitioners till date. His ability to think out of the box was a quality that helped him reach a stage of grandeur. Ernst was all alone during the initial years of his studies when he stated that an electron microscope could be developed. Many doubted him and scoffed at his idea that an apparatus of such great significance could actually be built. The same people had to eat their hats when the microscope was finally invented.

What one should learn from this legendary inventor is that one should never lose the will to succeed. Ernst’s life would have been very different had he chosen to give up on his dreams. Like they say, man is the maker of his own destiny and Ernst deserved every accolade that he received for his ingenuity. Here’s saluting the legendary inventor and genius known as Ernst Ruska.

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