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Perkin-Elmer was an American optical design and consulting company founded in 1937 by Richard S. Perkin and Charles W. Elmer.[1] The two met in the 1930s and shared a common interest in astronomy, leading them to go into the optics business together. the company was incorporated in New York in 1939.[2] In 1944 the company also began working in the field of analytical instruments. Starting in 1954, the business operated in Germany as Bodenseewerk Perkin-Elmer GmbH.

Perkin-Elmer designed the optical systems for the classified KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance satellites, commonly known as Big Birds, that were used by the United States from 1971-1986. The satellites contained a film camera with a 1.5 m, f/3.0 telephoto lens and a secondary, lower resolution film-based mapping camera. After exposure, the film was jettisoned from the satellite in a reentry vehicle that returned the film to Earth for processing.

During the 1960s - 1980s the company designed and built a variety of optical and lens systems for military use including weapons sighting systems, gun cameras, night reconnaissance gear, and camera systems. They provided lenses for the camera systems used in U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes including huge 36 inch f/4.0 lenses.[3] Strange Perkin-Elmer lenses from this era are frequently found from military surplus vendors and online auction websites.

Ellis Betensky worked for Perkin-Elmer as their senior optical designer prior to forming his own company, OPCON Associates. OPCON's first major project was as a design consultant to Ponder & Best to design their innovative Vivitar Series 1 lenses. Perkin-Elmer was chosen to manufacture the more complex optical designs due to Betensky's past associations with the company. Most of Vivitar Series 1 lenses were manufactured by traditional Japanese lens manufacturers but two, the 600mm f/8 and 800mm f/11 Solid Catadioptric lenses relied on the advanced optical materials and designs that Perkin-Elmer specialized in.

Perkin-Elmer sold the 600mm f/8[4] and 800mm f/11 Catadioptric lenses under their own name as well. These were identical to the OPCON-designed Vivitar Series 1 lenses that Perkin-Elmer manufactured. There is also known to be a Perkin-Elmer 680mm f/12 compact catadioptric lens.[5]

In the late 1970s Perkin-Elmer won a NASA contract to build the optical components of the Hubble Space Telescope, a job that became the company's most famous debacle. Technicians at the company miscalibrated a null corrector, resulting the creation of a primary mirror for the telescope that had significant spherical aberration. A problem that was not discovered until the telescope was in orbit. NASA launched a repair mission that applied corrections to the secondary mirror, leaving the larger, faulty primary mirror in place. A subsequent NASA investigation criticized Perkin-Elmer's management, noting that they had disregarded quality guidelines and ignored test data which showed the mirror to be faulty.[6]

On 28 May, 1999 Perkin-Elmer merged with EG&G, Inc to form PerkinElmer. The new company diversified into a wide range of technology businesses including health, environmental analysis, medical imaging, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, biotechnology, specialty lighting and sensors.