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The device, which was used for wildland fire detection was invented by in 1911

PHOTO COURTESY OF BOWMAN MUSEUM - The artwork above shows a diagram of the firefinder, invented by William Bushnell Osborne.

William Bushnell "Bush" Osborne began work as a young forester for the U.S. Forest Service on the Mount Hood National Forest in 1909. In 1911, he invented an alidade he called the "firefinder." The original instrument was 14 inches across, round, with a map of the surrounding area, and 360 degree marks etched around the rim. The disk was secured to a steel base, which then could be firmly attached to a tree stump. A brass sighting mechanism consisting of a rear vertical slit and a front vertical horsehair stretched tight pivoted precisely in the center of the circle. The geographical point of the lookout point was situated exactly in the center of the circular map. An arrow etched beneath the rear sight corresponded with the compass reading when sights were lined up on a distant smoke.

The first Osborne Firefinder was commercially produced in 1913 by Leupold-Volpel & Co., in Portland, Oregon. The Firefinder evolved through the years, with the final changes being made in 1934. The Osborne Firefinder is the most widely used fire plotting instrument in the world today. They were last featured for sale new in the 1991 Forestry Suppliers catalog for $3,495. Later, the firefinder was used in conjunction with panoramic photos.

The Osborne Photo Recording Transit is a rare and unusual panoramic camera. It combines a swinging lens camera for 6-inch roll film with the precision siting of a surveyor's transit. It was designed by Osborne, the inventor of the Osborne Firefinder, in 1931. The camera had its start within the development of a forest fire detection system. The idea was to provide fire lookouts with pinpoint accurate views of the scene from their lookout, with azimuth numbers (horizontal angles in 1-degree markings) that could be read and translated quickly to topographic maps.

The photographs were taken from a lookout on a clear day, and azimuth readings were imprinted on each negative at the time of exposure via an adjustable band built into the camera. The location and level line were added after the film was developed. The three 6-by-14-inch contact prints were then taken to the lookout and mounted for use, oriented to the forest base and topographic maps of the "seen area" in each photograph. The fire dispatchers, who were in contact with the lookout by radio, were provided with a set of the same contact prints.

There was a brief flurry of photo activity from 1932 to 1939 to take initial lookout panoramic photos. After this time, only sporadic use of the camera is recorded. Many lookouts were eliminated after the late 1950s due to aerial surveillance and other technologies. Today, lookout panoramic photos are mostly archived and are not used for fire detection.


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