Richard S. Perkin

Richard Perkin

Richard S. Perkin’s first interest was astronomy; at eleven he was making his own telescopes, and at thirteen he was grinding and polishing lenses. After a year in college studying chemical engineering, Perkin began his working life at a Wall Street brokerage firm. His career as a banker ended in the early 1930s when he met Charles Elmer. Elmer was delivering a lecture on astronomy at the Brooklyn Institute, and the pair’s mutual interest in stargazing gave them the idea to start a precision optics business.

Even after the lesson of interrupted supplies in World War I, the United States was still not particularly strong in the manufacture of precision optical instruments. In 1937 Perkin and Elmer established a partnership, Perkin-Elmer, to import these instruments from Europe, but within twelve months the company was manufacturing optical components in Jersey City, New Jersey. When World War II began, Perkin-Elmer was well placed to take advantage of an avalanche of military orders, since European supply, mostly from Germany, was now blockaded. Perkin-Elmer expanded production and made cameras, periscopes, range finders, bombsights, and other optical devices. In 1942 Perkin-Elmer became the first optical instruments company to win a Navy “E for excellence” rating.

After 1945 Perkin moved the company in new directions, redesigning and manufacturing infrared spectrometers, which were sold to universities and the expanding health-care sector. During the 1950s Perkin-Elmer also introduced gas chromatographs and atomic absorption spectrometers, which collectively ushered in a new era of analytical laboratory operations. Perkin was determined that the company would remain at the cutting edge of instrument technology and sought to design instruments that would keep pace with advances in such fields as atomic energy, solid-state electronics, lasers, and biophysical research.

At the time of Perkin’s death, Perkin-Elmer had broadened its range of products considerably. In keeping with an early interest in astronomy, the company’s products could be found on a wide variety of high-tech devices, including laser technology used in space satellites. Its Optical Instruments Division made the wafer-thin, transparent, gold coating on Neil Armstrong’s helmet visor used in the Apollo 11 moon landing, and in 1976 a Perkin- Elmer mass spectrometer arrived on Mars with NASA’s Viking lander.


 Perkin-Elmer's Connecticut headquarters. Courtesy of Perkin-Elmer.

Arnold O. Beckman

CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry was started with a generous grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 1987.


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