Falling For Wilson Bentley, The Original Snowflake Man

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

Wilson Bentley Digital Archives of the Jericho Historical Society/snowflakebentley.com   

‘No two snowflakes are alike’ is a saying that many of us have grown up hearing. But few of us are aware of the man who coined it, a farmer from a small rural town in Vermont by the name of Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931). Bentley was the first person to photograph a single snowflake, thus opening a window into this astonishing world of unique crystalline sculptures.

IT WASN’T EASY

Studying snowflakes was no easy feat. But after years of trial and error, in 1885 Bentley made a discovery. It all started when, as a young man, he figured out how to adapt his microscope to a bellows camera.

Wilson Bentley as a young man/Photo: snowflakebentley.com

As the child of a schoolteacher, Bentley spent much of his childhood observing things under his mother’s small microscope. Everything interested him on their family farm. It was not uncommon for him to spend hours studying everything from drops of water to tiny fragments of stone.

Frozen water droplet

However, it was snowflakes that fascinated him the most.

Bentley spent a lot of time in the winter observing ice crystals under his microscope and then attempting to draw them. But it was frustrating work. Their delicate symmetry and unique six-sized structures proved impossible to replicate on paper.

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

A single snowflake as viewed through Bentley’s microscope

Then one day, Bentley came across a story about a camera that could take photographs through a microscope. He persuaded his father to buy it. It was called a bellows camera.

THE GREATEST MOMENT OF BENTLEY’S LIFE

A year passed while Bentley experimented with the two types of cameras, learning to work quickly so as to capture the snowflakes before they melted. Although he knew nothing about photography, he kept at it until finally one day his hard work paid off. He said,

‘The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.’

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

With time, Bentley learned how to capture a snowflake before it changed shape as well as to produce sharp images that fully captured the intricacies of each hexagonal structure. His breakthrough in January of 1885 produced the world’s first photomicrographs ever taken of an ice crystal.

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,’ he said.

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

NO TWO SNOWFLAKES ALIKE

Over the next 13 years, Bentley went on to capture more than 5000 snowflakes, while keeping detailed records on the many sizes and shapes of the crystals. In the process, he discovered that not only was each a master work of symmetrical design, but no two snowflakes were exactly alike.

Bentley with his camera

“Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was every repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone without leaving any record behind,” he wrote.

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

STORMS PRODUCE THEIR OWN SIGNATURE SNOWFLAKES

Bentley also discovered that, as it fell to the ground, each snowflake bore witness to its journey. That is to say, it changed shape depending on air temperature, humidity and the strength of the storm. And different storms produced their own predominate type of ice crystal. Whether stellar, hexagonal, fernlike or other, the snowflakes’ appearance was constantly changing in response to diverse environmental conditions.

As his research grew, Bentley even went so far as to hypothesize that the circulation within a storm could be deduced from the structure of its ice crystal. This theory, however, turned out to be way ahead of its time and was not truly explored until nearly 30 years later by Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, a great admirer of Bentley’s.

Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

CLOSING THE BOOK 

In the beginning, Bentley sold his images for 5 cents. He published many popular and technical articles for magazines and journals in which he presented his forward-thinking hypotheses on their structures. His photomicrographs were later bought by colleges and universities throughout the world

In November of 1931, a book ‘entitled ‘Snow Crystals’ was published in which were displayed more than 2400 of Bentley’s snow crystal images. In early December with winter closing in, he wrote,

‘Cold north wind afternoon. Snow flying.’

That was to be the last entry Bentley ever made. He died at age 66 on December 23, 1931. Soon after his death, he became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley.’

To see more of Bentley’s amazing microphotographs, click here for Snowflake Bentley, the official website of Wilson Bentley. All microphotographs pictured in this post are from Wilson Bentley Digital Archives of the Jericho Historical Society/snowflakebentley.com.

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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