Already 61 at the time, Ott had burned through bushels of creative ideas, all of them intuitive, most of them rejected by the mullahs of science. Born Oct. 23, 1909, in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, where he also grew up and settled after graduating from high school, Ott worked briefly as a messenger for a stock brokerage firm, but the 1929 market crash sent him skittering to the First National Bank of Chicago, where his maternal grandfather had served as president and chairman, and his father was an attorney. This, however, was merely a day job. Ott spent his free time alone in his basement, consumed by experiments with time-lapse photography, something he'd begun tinkering with in 1927 while still in school. He set up the necessary lights and cameras, devised timing mechanisms for the equipment and proceeded to shoot the growth and flowering of various plants. Through the 1930s his hobby evolved into a side business, with Ott making short commercial, industrial and educational films for schools, lawn-care companies and other clients, while giving lectures and screening his time-lapse movies for local garden clubs.
After a two-year WWII hitch in the Navy (1943-1945), Ott returned home, quit the bank and plunged into commercial moviemaking full-time, expanding to include microscopic time-lapse films. He built backyard greenhouses to accommodate more projects, crisscrossed the nation lecturing and in 1948 began a decade-plus run as host of the weekly, half-hour, Chicago-based tv show How Does Your Garden Grow: some happy chat about flowers, some time-lapse films, some answers to readers' mail. At 6 feet, 4 inches, with wire-framed glasses, sandy hair and sculpted features, he came across as a homegrown horticultural heartthrob. "It made him a local celebrity," remembers his son James, reached by phone in Melbourne, FL. Meanwhile, Ott's film clientele mushroomed?railroads, universities?and in 1951 he contributed time-lapse footage to Walt Disney's Nature's Half Acre, winner of an Oscar for Best Short Subject, followed in 1956 by similar work (dancing flowers!) for Disney's Secrets of Life, which made manifest a long-percolating personal transformation: "The turning point," notes James, "that took him from just a photographer to a scientist, the lovely story about the sex life of a pumpkin."
As detailed in his 1958 book My Ivory Cellar, Ott was stymied while filming time-lapse sequences of a pumpkin's growth in his basement studio for Disney: pinkish fluorescent light wilted the plant's female flowers, but when he replaced the lights with bluish fluorescent bulbs and raised a new pumpkin, the male flowers perished. Based on these findings?and coupled with difficulties he'd encountered growing morning glories, corn and apples?Ott deduced that light wavelength could dramatically affect plant maturation, and that full-spectrum light, the kind that streams from the sun, greatly enhanced growth. Also: for producing robust plants, his greenhouses' glass windowpanes, which absorb ultraviolet wavelengths, were inferior to clear plastic sheeting, which transmits UV light. Finally, he suspected that spending time outdoors basking in full-spectrum light, without wearing his UV-blocking eyeglasses or sunglasses, significantly alleviated the arthritis in his hip?perhaps because sunlight triggered salutary responses in the endocrine system.
Firmly convinced of the benefits of full-spectrum light, Ott in 1966 moved to considerably sunnier Sarasota to continue his experiments, establishing the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute (the imposing name "added a little dignity to his efforts," his son surmises). His work led him to believe that radiation emitted by tv's, microwave ovens and video terminals was deleterious, and that different colors played an important role in animal and human behavior, laying out these theories in his 1973 book Health & Light.
Accordingly, he adapted his own lifestyle, encasing his home in UV-friendly plastic windowpanes, illuminating its interiors with full-spectrum Ott-Lite lamps (he licensed their manufacture) and lining his tv cabinet with lead while positioning a mirror to reflect the set's image so it did not directly strike his eyes. Publicly, he championed "healthy" lighting environments, railed against complacent television makers and developed a light box to treat seasonal affected disorder, eventually retiring in 1995.
When he died at the age of 90 on April 6 in Sarasota, few in the scientific community had yet to acknowledge the value of his ideas. "He was totally outside the mainstream academia," says James, "and had tremendous trouble gaining acceptance. He was convinced that these theories were going to have a monumental impact on people's lives. He thought he could change the way we live."
He certainly changed historically pigheaded baseball. While making films for the Royals Academy, Ott acquainted Syd Thrift with his hypotheses about light. "He said to me, 'Why do you have green under the brims of baseball caps? That's the worst color it could be,'" Thrift remembers. "And I said, 'Because everybody's had them since the beginning of baseball.' So I asked, 'What should they be?' And he said, 'Medium gray.'" Thrift immediately ordered new caps with neutral gray underbilling for his academy players. Eureka! "You could see the ball better," contends Thrift, "you could hit the ball better." The big-league Royals followed suit. After consultations with Ott, the Cincinnati Reds also adopted the gray-lined caps. And by the end of the 70s, all pro baseball players wore them.
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