How Have National Parks Changed Over Time?

Viewing photographs of different eras in the national parks can give many insights on ecosystem processes, as well as simply change over time. The photographs associated with panoramic lookout photographs provide a window on the past, and an opportunity to compare to the present with changes to land forms and land cover.

About the Osborne Camera

A man stands on top of a lookout with the Osborne camera.

Retake photography from atop Divide Lookout in Glacier National Park. In the 1930s, Lester Moe often took photos from the catwalk or roof of lookouts. Today, Divide Lookout is one of the few lookouts that is left from Moe’s era.

The camera used, known as an Osborne photo-recording transit, was designed by W. B. Osborne, a U.S. Forest Service employee, for fire protection purposes. Custom made, it combined the features of an engineering surveyor’s transit with photographic capabilities. Additionally, Mr. Osborne designed the Osborne fire finder to help pinpoint forest fire locations. Osborne fire finders are still in use in many lookouts today.

Osborne photo recording transit, also called Osborne camera.

The Osborne photo recording transit is also called the Osborne camera.

Each camera weighed approximately 75 pounds, and was often carried on the photographer’s back up to the lookout. The film was stationary while the lens rotated 120° from right to left for each frame, providing a fixed focal length across the width of the film.

The sun’s position dictated when each photograph could be taken, with the 180°-300° arc photo taken about 9:00 am, the 300°-60° arc photo about 12:00 pm, and the 60°-180° arc photo about 3:00 pm. The camera was positioned along the catwalk of the lookout when possible, but it was sometimes necessary to climb towers, roofs, and trees to take photographs.

More photographs of the Osborne camera are available in the photo gallery.

Material for this section credited to USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.