by Karissa Kessen
Photographer. Inventor. Cinematographer. TV Show Host. Optics researcher. These are just a few of the titles Dr. John Nash Ott, a native Winnetkan, held during his lifetime. Born in 1909, Ott was intrigued by time-lapse photography and botany from a young age. Although Ott continued in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by taking a job at the First National Bank of Chicago, it was only his day job. Ott spent his free time on his hobby, time-lapse photography. In 1927, Ott created his first film featuring apple blossoms blooming in his house overnight. The majority of Ott’s later films featured species of flowers, vegetables, and fruits in various stages of growth. In the 1930s, Ott built a large greenhouse on his property at 40 Woodley Road with the help of a local Winnetka blacksmith.
The greenhouse allowed Ott to grow his own plants in a controlled environment and house his self-invented time-lapse photography equipment. Ott’s equipment included: a timer that turned on the lights and tripped cameras on preset intervals (adapted from the timer he took off his kitchen stove); a device that adjusted the window shades according to the time of day; and an alarm system that rang a bell in Ott’s bedroom if the hot photographic lights stayed on for a long period of time or if the temperature in the greenhouse exceeded the maximum or minimum predetermined temperature.
Using the sophisticated equipment in his greenhouse, Ott was able to expand his time-lapse photography skills, and his work became well-known throughout the country. His films were featured in advertising for the O. M. Scott & Sons Company, advertising for RCA color televisions, an episode of the TV show “You Asked For It”, Walt Disney’s Nature’s Half Acre, and Walt Disney’s documentary Secrets of Life. He also hosted his own weekly television show How Does Your Garden Grow? from the 1940s to the 1960s. Ott created his own short films including “Dancing Flowers” and “Exploring the Spectrum,” which were shown to Winnetka community groups and clubs in a home-made theater in his basement. See newsreel footage of Ott in his greenhouse from the Chicago Film Archives here.
In the 1970s, Ott became interested in the effects of light on humans, plants, and animals. Using specially equipped time-lapse cameras, he photographed various cells and their reaction to different wavelengths of light. From his research, Ott concluded that full-spectrum light was the healthiest light for humans.
He created a company named OttLite Technology, and that company invented the OttLite light bulb, which emits full-spectrum light. You can still purchase the OttLite light bulb today.
Ott’s research on light also changed Major League Baseball teams’ uniforms. Ott consulted with MLB teams and told them that changing the color of the underside of a baseball cap’s bill from green to medium gray would decrease sun glare and improve sight for baseball players. The underside of MLB on-field hat bills have been medium gray ever since.
Ott moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1966, passing away there in 2000. His list of accomplishments is extensive, and his contributions to time-lapse photography, optics research, and even Major League Baseball have been long-lasting. Not only was Ott a prominent Winnetka resident, he was an important figure in American cinematic and time-lapse photography history.
I became familiar with Ott when I applied for the John Ott Special Collections Internship at the Winnetka Historical Society in August 2014. Supported in part by an award from the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), National Archives and Records Administration, I was hired to assist the WHS in inventorying, assessing, and rehousing the newly-acquired collection donated to the historical society by Ott’s sons.
The collection includes over 370 16mm films, dozens of VHS and cassette tapes, a few Super 8 and 35mm films, photographs, and two scrapbooks. In the first three months of the internship, I opened every 16mm film canister and recorded its location, appearance, and condition in an Excel spreadsheet. Doing this allowed WHS to see the full extent of the collection.
From December to March 2015, I removed each film from rusty metal cans, lightly cleaned, and rewound the 16mm films on an archival core. Today, the films are stored in museum-grade canisters to delay further deterioration. This project not only stabilized Ott’s time-lapse films, it ensured the films will be viable and able to be made accessible to the public in the future.
Learn more about Dr. Ott in his autobiography My Ivory Cellar and watch the video below to witness some of Ott’s work firsthand!