Dick Babish will celebrate his 99th birthday on Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Greens at Cannondale. After nearly a century he can look back on a life that began in very modest circumstances but rose to include significant contributions to the film industry, space exploration, and spycraft.
His life began on the family farm in Massachusetts where he attended a four-room schoolhouse. Later, his father ran a small butcher shop in Cambridge which the family lived above in a small apartment. With his parents in the bedroom and his sisters in the main room, he and his two brothers slept in the kitchen.
It appeared that Babish was headed for a job in a meat packing plant but thanks to a supportive high school teacher he applied for and won a scholarship MIT offered to a single outstanding student in the Cambridge school district.
According to his son, Jim, “it changed the direction of my dad’s entire life.”
After MIT, Babish worked for a short time at Paramount News Corporation in New York City where he met his future wife, Josita. She was working there as a secretary. They were married for 65 years and raised two children. She died at their Wilton home in 2011 in her 90th year.
In the 1950s, Babish was hired by Perkin-Elmer, then a small but growing technical company. At the same time, he became involved with a pet project in the basement of the Norwalk house where he and his family lived. There, he worked on the technology for Cinerama, the first successful widescreen movie system.
This led to Babish leaving Perkin-Elmer for several years to work at Cinema, Inc., as technical director of film technology. Cinerama projected images simultaneously from three synchronized 35mm projectors onto a huge, deeply curved screen. The system gained wide use in theaters around the country but its heyday was short-lived.
Back to Perkin-Elmer
According Jim Babish, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, his father felt he should return to Perkin-Elmer to direct his talents on behalf of U.S. space technology. Initially, he worked on a number of aircraft-mounted surveillance cameras that evolved into sophisticated wide-film format, stereo-view, high-altitude cameras. One of his early projects was the Stratoscope II balloon-borne telescope that recorded images of the sun from above the atmosphere.
He soon headed Perkin-Elmer’s Optical Design Department and was involved almost from the beginning with the highly classified Hexagon Spy Satellite program, the most complicated satellite placed in orbit at the time. Its role was to map on wide film the entire landmass of the Earth with the ability to view enemy assets with extremely high resolution.
As technology developed so did Perkin-Elmer. The company reached its peak in the mid-1980s with 15,000 employees in world-wide operations and revenues of $1.3 billion. It maintained a dozen plants and offices along the Route 7 corridor with its headquarters on the Norwalk-Wilton line and other facilities in Wilton, Ridgefield and Danbury.
During the later part of his career with Perkin-Elmer, Babish was involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope that, 26 years later, is still orbiting the Earth and sending back images.
Dan McCarthy, who was a senior technical manager in Perkin-Elmer’s optical group offered this assessment of working with Babish.
“Dick’s door was always open. In preparing to propose on the Hubble, we went months without a design concept that would satisfy the near impossible fine guidance requirement. Finally, with Dick and his group’s effort, an innovative concept emerged which I believe was key to P-E winning the space telescope contract.”
Babish was also keen on encouraging students.
“My dad was always interested in teaching the next generation of scientists,” his son Jim said. “He became very active in a Perkin-Elmer-sponsored program at Norwalk Community College to encourage new engineers to study the field of optics.”
Although Perkin-Elmer began downsizing in 1989 with the last unit sold in 1999, Babish is still active with the company’s retiree club and is, in fact, a member of its board of directors.
— Compiled from information from Jim Babish as told to Don Mahon.