In the early 1930’s forest fires plagued the western landscape. They were big and they were costly. In 1931, eight firefighters lost their lives. In 1933, 29 flames felled 29. To ensure there was adequate visual coverage of all forest areas for fire detection purposes and to better locate fires, foresters turned to a new (and for the time,) high tech tool: the Osborne Recording Transit, invented by John Osborne. It produced a panoramic image that could be precisely aligned with the fire lookout’s view of a fire. Dispatchers could accurately match the location of a fire with a photo(s) of the landscape. According to TNC of Oregon’s Bryce Kellogg, for the first time dispatchers could accurately describe the landscape where the fire was burning. Firefighters could be more prepared for the challenges they faced.
John Osborne was a highly inventive forester who worked for the USFS in the Mt. Hood National Forest from 1905. A graduate of Yale School of Forestry, Osborne understood the need for fire lookouts to precisely locate sites of ignition. In 1915 he invented the Osborne Firefinder, which is still in use today. To provide a better understanding of the topography, vegetation and possible locations that could not be seen from the fire lookouts, Osborne invented a unique panoramic camera. It shot a high-resolution b/w image that covered 120-degree view. Three photographs provided the complete 360-degree view from the lookout.
To produce the 120-degree view, the Osborne camera had a lens that rotated during exposure. The cameras had to be precisely oriented at each location so that the directional ticks exposed onto the film would match the actual directions. Sometimes the North Star was used to orient camera for the next day’s shooting. Only ten or fewer of these cameras were ever made. They weighed about 75 pounds and were manufactured by Leupold and Stevens (Now Leupold) in Portland, Oregon. Despite their weight and general awkwardness, Osborne panoramas were shot at virtually every lookout in Oregon and Washington, a total of 813 lookout sites. Today, more than 3,000 Osborne panorama negatives are housed at the National Archives in Seattle, Wa.