F. W. Breithaupt & Sohn: The World's Oldest Instrument Manufacturer, Part 2

Editor's note: In the last issue I discussed the history of F.W. Breithaupt & Sohn. In this part I will discuss some of the many instruments that Breithaupt makes today.


Today, Breithaupt manufactures more than 100 instruments, many of which are for special applications. The theodolite group includes builder and surveyor models, a compass theodolite, an upside-down mining theodolite and a specialized pilot-balloon theodolite for tracking weather balloons. A large order of the pilot-balloon model for Thailand was being assembled while I was there.

Educational Training Set

Also included is an ingenious educational training set that includes a theodolite, level and alidade. Many of the parts are exposed to allow the student to see the workings. All of the pieces come apart and can be re-assembled into the various instruments. When I asked how it was designed to allow the student to keep everything precisely lined up when re-assembling, Breithaupt smiled and said, "That was the hard part!"

The levels group includes a full range, from hand levels and clinometers to builders' models, and all the way to First-order levels. The NECLI clinometer will provide distance, height and vertical angle and can also be used as a hand level. One that caught my eye was the NIFIX, a small builder's level that will fit in the palm of a hand. Breithaupt said they have never received a NIFIX back for repairs or maintenance because it is so rugged, and any needed maintenance can be handled by the user. American surveyors consider basic equipment to be a total station and an automatic level, but Breithaupt reminded me that many developing countries don't always have access to electricity, and they don't want equipment that has to be returned to the dealer or factory for service or repairs. I inquired about the curious naming convention for the instruments and Breithaupt told me that it comes from the time when equipment orders from around the world came in via telegraph or telex. The so-called "Marconi codes" were limited to five characters and various codes were created to keep word counts low. There is, however, a system. For instance, levels are preceded by the letters NI or NE, which comes from the German word Nivelliere for level: NECLI stands for level + clinometer. In recent times, new instruments have broken from this tradition, the first being the TECTRONIC 4000 electronic compass. Breithaupt manufactured its first automatic level in 1956, and its NABON First-order level is accurate to ±0.2mm per kilometer.

Alidades and Plane Tables

A wide variety of alidades and plane tables are available, both in manual and electronic versions. Plane tables are carefully ground to ensure flatness. The MEJUN has a curious-looking bracket that attaches the alidade to the plane table. The bracket fits a shoulder and makes moving the instrument easier. The alidade is "connected" to the plane table via a series of gimbals that ensure accurate placement of the shot onto the map.

Breithaupt manufactures a complete range of compasses, primarily for geology and mining. Recent additions to the product line include the TECTRONIC 4000, a geological data collector that gathers azimuth and angle of dip electronically, displays the information on an LCD and stores it in memory. It includes an electronic pedometer for distance measurements and can be ordered with an optional altimeter. Breithaupt spoke of the difficulty in designing the compass to prevent magnetic interference, even to the point of obtaining non-magnetic batteries. The COBRU model is similar to the familiar Brunton compass. The COMTA mining suspension compass is gimbal-mounted and can be attached to a wire for sliding. Many of the compasses can be fitted with telescopes and can also be mounted on tripods.

Geodetic Testing Equipment

Geodetic testing equipment made by Breithaupt is used at universities and testing labs around the world and includes double-image comparators, adjusting collimators, testing instruments for graduated circles, and an instrument that will test spirit level vials. Specialized instruments include an optical plumbing instrument that is accurate to ±1-1.5mm at 100 meters. Uses for this 1" instrument include monitoring slip-forms. Applications include chimney building in which one instrument is used. Bigger structures might use as many as four. Other specialized instruments include optical railroad track alignment equipment and laser field-of-view measuring equipment. The latter can be used to establish field-of-view from a vehicle by locating obstructions such as a pillar or a rear-view mirror. A full range of optical tooling equipment is available, as is the design and manufacture of precision parts or instruments according to a customer's specifications.

At the Skinner auction held last summer in Boston (see "Auction of Surveying, Science and Technology Instruments" in the January/February 1998 issue, pp. 8-14), I had my eye on a Breithaupt compass made around 1800. I noticed that Kassel was spelled Cassel. When I asked Breithaupt about this, he told me that until 1923, the word was spelled with a "C," after the Latin castellum for castle. By the way, I'm still kicking myself about the compass. I was the only bidder in the room and was bidding against a mail-in bid. I chickened out at $450, and the compass went for $500. I will forever wonder whether I could have had it for $550.

Profound Sense of Respect

Surveyors love history, both for romantic and legal reasons. Many of us also have a love for precision and finely crafted measuring equipment. I left the factory with a profound sense of respect for the history of Breithaupt, as well as its capability to produce high-quality, precision equipment. Breithaupt pursues niche markets around the world. Today, Breithaupt instruments can be found in 130 countries around the globe, and more than 430,000 instruments have been made. The week that I was there, instruments were being shipped to Bhutan and Brunei. With America's love for German cars, and the high quality reputation of many German products, I find it puzzling that, with the exception of geological compasses, Breithaupt instruments are not sold in America. Perhaps price is an issue, or it could be that the United States is firmly wedded to the use of total stations. In any case, when it comes to specialized instruments, and instruments that are built to last with little need for maintenance, F.W. Breithaupt & Sohn continues to build on a world-wide reputation that began more than 236 years ago.

About the Author

  • Marc Cheves, LS
    Marc Cheves was a former editor of the magazine.

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