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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley

Wilson A.  Bentley, who lived in Jericho, Vermont, was the first person to photograph individual snow crystals (snowflakes) through a microscope, and coined the phrase that "no two snowflakes are alike."  1865-1931

As a young boy, he was delighted by the world around him in the green hills and bucolic valleys of Vermont.  

He apparently loved all of nature to include watching butterflies, looking at spider webs and so on, but especially liked the rain and the snow.

 In fact, he loved all aspects of weather and actually kept a life long weather diary. 

He was given the nickname "Snowflake Bentley", as he spent an obsessive amount of time collecting snowflakes to examine under a microscope.  Bently, a self-educated man, pioneered a new means of photography, as his greatest desire was to capture the beauty of each individual flake on film.  

The idea of rigging his microscope to a bellows camera was how he thought this may be possible.  Lo and behold! In 1885, when he was just 20 years old, his trial and error had paid off and he became the first person to capture an individual snowflake on a glass plate photograph. From his work, the term and science of "photomicrography" (micro-photography) was born.  

Incidentally, his first microscope was a birthday gift from his mother at the age of fifteen.  He had never attended public schools until he was 14 years old, as his mother was a former school teacher and gave him his lessons at home.  

Upon reading several articles dedicated to Bentley's life, I think it would be safe to say that his mother bestowed upon him a love of nature, and provided the nurturing support that encouraged this unique study.  

You can read some of his own touching words and thoughts, on the Jericho Historic Society's website dedicated to Snowflake Bentley. 

You will also discover the groundwork he did around another atmospheric phenomena:  Rain.  Precisely: measuring rain.... fascinating!   Click here:  

Very simply, the genius of his studies was the fact that he was able to conclude that almost all snowflakes have six sides, and very rare ones have only three. 

He expected that all snowflakes would essentially be the same, but the more he examined and captured with his camera, he was able to confirm that each was different.  

One must consider this work in it's context, both scientifically and artistically.  Imagine, trying to capture a tiny melting snowflake under a microscope, with a camera attached.  A snowflake is fleeting, so the fact that he spent over 40 years to record over 5,000 individual snow crystals is really amazing, for the intricate detail of each plate is truly something to behold!

"Bentley stood in the winter cold for hours at a time; waiting patiently until he caught falling flakes. Once a snowflake landed, he carefully handled it with a feather to place it under the lens. The apparatus was set up outside so that the delicate specimens would not melt, and after a minute and a half exposure, he captured the image of a snowflake." - Source: siarchives.si.edu/history (Smithsonian Institute)

Bentley teamed up with William J. Humphrey who worked with the U.S. Weather Bureau as a physicist, published a book entitled, "Snow Crystals", in which they shared over 2,300 photographic plates of the subject book.  

He generously shared his tiny masterpieces with universities and colleges around the world.  He published approximately 60 magazines and journals articles showing the study of his work to include information about dew, frost and rain.  

His photographs and important work were published in notable magazines such as Scientific American and the National Geographic.  

Tiffany and Co.,  even bought a few of his plates to develop jewelry designs.

Snowflake Bentley knew the importance of his work, and in 1903 donated 500 of his plates to the Smithsonian Institution to protect them (snow photographs) "beyond all possibility of loss and destruction, through fire and accident."  Today, his photographs remain in their archives to preserve and protect them from any such disaster. 

Wilson's grave marker
"Of all the forms of water the tiny six-pointed crystals of ice called snow are incomparably the most beautiful and varied." -- Wilson Bentley

 Ironically, after enduring so many days out of doors in the winter, Bentley died in his family farmhouse in 1931 after walking through a blizzard where he developed pneumonia, from which he never recovered.  

And now when you see the snowfall, or hang a snowflake ornament on your Christmas tree, or perhaps cut out a paper snowflake with a child, I hope you will think of Wilson Bentley and the gift he brought to us.  For without him, perhaps we would have never known these timeless and beautiful creations of nature.

Publications and links found on the Smithsonian Institute:

Popular Mechanics:


The Life and death of Snowflake Bentley:


From the town of Jericho:  http://snowflakebentley.com/

On Frost: http://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/WAB_Frost.pdf

Vermont State Historic Marker, Jericho, Vermont
Image sources: icr.org/article/snowflake-bentley-science-man-god/; Tiffany and Co.; auntieannie; google images