Richard E. Honig was born in Göttingen, Germany, the eldest of three boys. He attended Robert College, an American college in Istanbul, from which he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. In 1938, Honig moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Through a course in nuclear physics, he became interested in the nature of atoms, molecules and particularly isotopes, and eventually built his own mass spectrometer to study the effects of deuterium and cyclotron radiation on methane. His thesis on the nature of gas flow in that mass spectrometer was written under the direction of Clark Goodman.
In 1946, Honig accepted a position at Socony-Vacuum Labs in Paulsboro, New Jersey, where he was able to continue the pursuit of his interest in the study of small hydrocarbon molecules with mass spectrometry. Honig joined the research staff at the Radio Corporation of America Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1950, where he remained for the rest of his long career. His work began in Don North's group, studying materials used in hot cathodes. He designed and built a two-stage mass spectrometer, which led a few years later to the development of a secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS). He spent a year during the mid-1950's at the University of Brussels helping to start a mass spectrometry laboratory with Jean Drowart. Honig's career at RCA focused on materials characterization, particularly impurities in semiconductor materials, first with mass spectrometry and then later with a variety of surface analysis techniques when he became head of the newly formed Materials Characterization Research Group there in the mid-1960's. His long-time interest in cluster formation led to his measurement of elemental vapor pressures as a function of temperature and the evaluation of previously reported values for these quantities. Honig stepped down from his managerial position in 1982 and spent the next several years back in the laboratory helping to design and build a new mass spectrometer to study the organic materials on surfaces.