John Nash Ott

Preserving the John Nash Ott Time-Lapse Collection

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.

John Nash Ott Greenhouse

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.


Original film cans.

John Nash Ott Collection

John Nash Ott Collection rehoused in permanent storage.

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!

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13 Responses to “Preserving the John Nash Ott Time-Lapse Collection”

  1. Anthony Eitel Ott June 27, 2017 at 6:56 AM #

    I am deeply honored that you have taken the time to restore my grandfathers hard work. I was told that the films and documentations were donated. The preservation of history should be a priority of this nation. I myself follow this belief and have spent over ten years resurrecting a circa 1744 pre war of independence home in Springfield NJ. How can we get access to some of the films? Thank you so much for what you have done. Anthony Eitel Ott

    • June 27, 2017 at 6:28 PM #

      Hi Anthony, thank you so much for your comment. It is great to hear from one of John Ott’s descendants. I will send you an email shortly!

    • November 20, 2017 at 5:27 AM #

      I inherited a small sterling silver coin box from Hilma Larsen who worked for the OTT family probably prior to 1950 .
      The engraving on the box says, ”JOHN NASH OTT Oct. 23, 1909″. It is approx. 3″ tall embellished with artistic stamping and inscription – Sing a song of six pence, pocket full of rye. Hilma was my great grandmother and I am hoping that perhaps John Ott may have photographed her. Any info you may have for me, I would greatly appreciate. Thank you so much.
      Sincerely, Michael Ingram 858 649-6089

      • November 29, 2017 at 9:03 PM #

        Hello and thank you for your inquiry. Several years ago we were given an extensive collection of John Nash Ott 16mm films as well as a collection of papers, photographs, and scrapbooks. We are in the processof digitizing the collection of time-lapse films currently. While our curator is gone for 2 months, I would be happy to explore any photographs we might have and get back to you.

  2. February 17, 2020 at 5:55 AM #

    By the way, I bought an Ott light years ago. I also believe we need artificial light that is more like natural sunlight. And there was as a trend in building lighting to make it more natural.

  3. February 20, 2020 at 1:08 AM #

    I see you did not accept my comments about the controversial film he made, which showed potential harm from water fluoridation.
    Just in case you are interested in seeing this film, I posted it here:

    It would be interesting to know Ott’s opinion on fluoridation and the film he made, but this is likely lost forever.

  4. April 5, 2020 at 3:36 AM #

    I know John Ott lived in Winnetka.
    My Navy dad took me duck hunting in probably ’61, ’62 at a time lapse photographer’s property on Lake Michigan.
    We passed small huts with windows and with flowers and cameras inside.
    We shot at a T-shaped dock on the lake.
    My dad said he knew the owner who did timelapse photography for Walt Disney, and I assume this was John Ott.
    The property was south of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center where I lived, but unsure if all the way to Winnetka.
    Maybe a secondary property.
    Anyway, bumped into this article and brought back boyhood memories of a young highschool Navy brat. 🙂

    • April 7, 2020 at 1:27 AM #

      Steve, thank you so much for sharing!

  5. April 5, 2020 at 3:42 AM #

    Forgot to mention, my dad was a Navy dentist who pushed for water floridation at low levels to promote good tooth care, which is why I responded to begin with. He was successful!

  6. December 13, 2020 at 3:02 PM #

    My Grandfather, Harry Lynch Sr. worked with John Ott on the movie Spring Blossoms. My Grandfather was a master gardener living in Chicago area and Lake Forrest. My parents had a copy of the film and converted it to DVD not realizing the significance of this body of work.

  7. John l ott February 15, 2021 at 2:14 PM #

    Hi my name is John Lowell. Ott. And I was caught by the name my sister cherilyn. Sent me the Linq which I have watched quite a bit and intensely impressed I myself do basic photography and have an 8 mm film camera and projector I also have a high-tech 8 cassette projector and recorder and Dabble in recording small insects and creatures that most people do not even see so this was nice to see some way or another that it tends to run in the family makes me proud to hear of him I had never heard of him before


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    […] -During the 1930s he build a large greenhouse to grow his own plants and use his self-invented time-lapse photography equipment to expand his time-lapse photography skills. 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. ‘ – Winnetka Historical Society […]

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