Charles Elmer, like his partner Richard Perkin, was born in New York City and spent most of his life as a court reporter. A keen amateur stargazer, Elmer was already close to retirement when in 1936 he presented an astronomy seminar in Brooklyn. In the audience was Perkin. The two men bemoaned the lack of a significant manufacturer of fine optics in the United States and promptly decided to remedy the defect. Starting with $20,000 in capital (75 percent from Perkin and the remaining $5,000 paid by Elmer), the partners set up Perkin-Elmer, an optics business in New York City, and began importing instruments from Europe.
Elmer enjoyed working in the Perkin-Elmer workshop and left management of the business to Perkin, whose natural talent was sales. However, Elmer acted as company treasurer and chief financial officer. In keeping with their mutual interest in astronomy, Perkin and Elmer attended every astronomy symposium and seminar they could, often driving hundreds of miles for a single meeting.
Perkin-Elmer responded to the tremendous challenges brought on by World War II by expanding production of such vital military equipment as bombsights and aircraft range finders. Meanwhile, Elmer built up an R&D capability that enabled the company to convert rapidly to civilian production after the war. True to its origins, Perkin-Elmer built a 33-inch Baker Schmidt telescope, which was installed at an observatory in South Africa in 1950 by Harvard University. Five years later, and a year after Elmer’s death at the age of eighty-three, the company installed a transverse panoramic camera, with 12-by-14-foot frames that could take precise horizon-to-horizon aerial reconnaissance pictures from 40,000 feet, a remarkable achievement in presatellite photography.
Perkin-Elmer model 12-C recording infrared spectrometer. Courtesy of Perkin-Elmer.