Carl Otto Lampland was born on December 29, 1873 near Hayfield, Minnesota. He was the third of eleven children and a second generation Norwegian. He went to college in Indiana, attending Valparaiso Normal School and Indiana University. Among his classmates were future Lowell Observatory astronomers (and brothers) V.M. and E.C. Slipher. He received a bachelor's degree in astronomy from Indiana University in 1902 and began working at Lowell Observatory in October of that year. He designed cameras for telescopes and used the cameras to take photographs of planets, comets, variable stars, nebulae, and star clusters over the course of his 49-year career. He received the British Royal Photographic Society Medal in 1905 for the camera he designed for the 24-inch Clark Telescope.

Lampland assisted Percival Lowell with observations of Mars, and he played a significant role in the search for Lowell's hypothesized Planet X, which began in 1905. He also worked closely with W.W. Coblentz of the U.S. Bureau of Standards to measure the temperatures of the planets using thermocouples that he built. 

In 1909, the observatory acquired a 40-inch reflecting telescope. Lampland was the telescope's primary user, and he used it to take more than 10,000 images of various astronomical objects on glass plate negatives. 

In addition to his work as an astronomer, he was the Observatory's librarian and acquired an impressive collection of books, which are now housed in the Slipher Building Rotunda. 

In 1911, Lampland married Verna B. Darby. She often assisted Lampland at the telescope, as he noted in his correspondence and diaries.

Lampland was hesitant to publish much of his work, and as a result he is often underrepresented in the history of Lowell Observatory and astronomy in general. For example, he was the first person to observe a comet in the infrared. He wrote an abstract about his findings but never a formal paper, and credit for the achievement is often incorrectly attributed to others.

Lampland died of a stroke on December 14, 1951 in Flagstaff, Arizona.