In 1850, businessman Ernst Leybold laid the foundations for a company in Cologne today known as Leybold – and the vacuum specialist is celebrating 170 years of business in 2020.


Source: Leybold

Initially a commission and forwarding agency for medical glassware, ointment pots, thermometers and scales, Ernst (pictured right) expanded his range of products in 1854 to include physical, pharmaceutical and chemical apparatus.

Whilst Ernst sold his business in 1870, it continued to operate under the name of E. Leybold’s Nachfolger.

The triumphant procession of vacuum technology began in 1906 through collaboration with Dr. Wolfgang Gaede, professor of physics in Karlsruhe.

Gaede’s work ethic was characterised by efficiency: “If I pursue an idea out of scientific interest, I always come up with an invention.”

The cooperation between Leybold and Gaede produced innovations that are still very important today, such as the invention of the molecular air pump, the basic principle of the turbomolecular pump (1911), and the use of the diffusion pump (1913).

Diffusion pumps have no moving parts – their operating principle is based on vaporous propellants and enables reliable, low-maintenance operation. These robust ‘workhorses’ are still used in applications today.

Gaede’s gas ballast device for efficient pumping of vapors – patented in 1935 – is still used in many applications today.

Milestone in vacuum coating technology

The year 1913 marked the beginning of vacuum metallurgy. At that time, Dr. Wilhelm Rohn, head of the physical test laboratory at W.C. Heraeus GmbH in Hanau, developed a process for melting high-purity metals under vacuum.

Interrupted by WWI, the ‘process for vacuum melting and tempering of metals and alloys’ could only be patented after the war in 1918. 

In 1931 Wilhelm Carl Heraeus succeeded in vaporising metals onto glass – another milestone in vacuum coating technology.

Dr. Manfred Dunkel took over as managing director at E. Leybold’s Nachfolger in the same year (1931) and led the company successfully until 1967.

This period was defining as vacuum technology was increasingly used in the flourishing industry during this time.

Therefore, technical and scientific knowledge as well as management skills were required, in order to transfer the findings into process engineering applications.

Vacuum and process engineering in the portfolio

The Metallgesellschaft AG and the Degussa AG secured participations in E. Leybold’s Nachfolger in 1948 and 1955.

This generated synergies, ensured success on the world markets and led to a merger of E. Leybold’s Nachfolger and Heraeus Hochvakuum GmbH in 1967.


Source: Leybold

The result was a well-mixed portfolio of vacuum technology and vacuum process engineering.

Further growth resulted from product developments such as cryogenic pumps with liquid helium (1962), and helium leak detectors.

In 1963, Ion atomizer pumps were presented for the first time.

Strong growth, economic turbulence

The 1980s were shaped by strong growth. By 1987, Leybold had expanded to about 5,600 employees and achieved a turnover of more than one billion D-Mark.

Fundamental changes in the ownership structure took place within the same year; The Metallgesellschaft AG withdrew as a shareholder and W.C. Heraeus also disposed of its shares. This resulted in the Degussa AG now being the sole shareholder.

The headquarters of Leybold AG and the sector of vacuum process technology moved to the Hanau location.

Vacuum technology was located in Cologne and scientific and technical teaching materials were in Hürth.

With the opening of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the economic downturn of the western industrialised countries, the new Leybold AG experienced great economic turbulence.

This resulted in the Degussa AG selling its shares to the Oerlikon-Bührle Group (Switzerland) in 1994.

A year later (1995), Leybold AG and Balzers AG were merged into the Balzers and Leybold Group.

Focus on semiconductor technologies

1997 saw Leybold GmbH found a wholly owned subsidiary in China in order to profit from the high potential of the emerging economic region and customer proximity.

In 2000, the Oerlikon- Bührle Group was renamed UNAXIS, accompanied by extensive restructuring by focusing on semiconductor related technologies.

This required innovations in the manufacturing technology which Leybold met by opening the new production building for high vacuum technology in Cologne in 2004.


Source: Leybold

Supported by economic growth, the UNAXIS Group was renamed to Oerlikon in 2006.

Leybold operated under the name Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum until its sale to Atlas Copco.

Acquisition by Atlas Copco

In 2016, Swedish firm Atlas Copco AB acquired Leybold. Today, Leybold is part of Atlas Copco’s Vacuum Technique business area.

Atlas Copco relys on Leybold’s traditional brand strength and on complementing the innovative technological know-how.

For 170 years, Leybold - with headquarters in Cologne, Germany - has been developing and supplying vacuum pumps, systems, standardised and customised vacuum solutions and services for many different industries.

Today, Leybold is leading as a supplier of vacuum technology in many industrial applications; such as metallurgy and industrial coating technology.