A Vermont “farmer’s kid,” Wilson Bentley, did extensive
research in his lifetime into the unique qualities of
snowflakes. Bentley was born in 1865 and raised in Jericho,
Vermont. He is known as the “Snowflake Man.”
Wilson Bentley became interested in snowflakes and their
individual characteristics while only 14 years old. He was
a self-educated scientist and a pioneer photographer.
Bentley documented the beauty and structure of snowflakes,
along with the weather and climate conditions that would
foretell the arrival of snow. His body of work is shown
through a collection of over 5000 photo micrographs.
Bentley’s book, “Snow Crystals,” was published shortly
before his death. This features outstanding and wondrous
photographs of snowflakes.
As a teenager, he started in the woodshed, in cold conditions
with little money available. He used a microscope to view the
fragile, quickly melting snowflakes. He would try to copy,
closely, their intricate patterns and geometric structures.
He had to rush to do this, of course, before they melted.
There was an abundance of snow up in the Green Mountains of
Vermont. This had initiated his curiosity in snow and their
potential to be drawn and magnified.
In the mid-1880’s, Bentley started to use a microscope attached
to a large bellows camera, to capture the images of snowflakes.
Through his arduous and consuming passion in this subject, and
multiple trials and errors, he could eventually illuminate
the crystals and darken the background. This enabled the final
product to create the translucent quality of snowflakes. The
distinct and individual patterns were more easily seen, once
he had finished the different ways to produce the light against
the dark contrast. Bentley had limited technology at hand to
create the conducive, environmental conditions for photographing.
He was such a dedicated pioneer in his field! He had no formal
training; “just” interest and patience to do this experimentation.
His shed became a darkroom and the stream nearby, the water to
wash his prints off. He was able to produce clear negatives and
prints in wintry, freezing conditions. Imagine those obstacles
that he overcame.
In his 33rd year, Bentley had his first real recognition, by his
article being published in “Appleton’s Popular Scientific Monthly.”
This magazine article brought him opportunities to lecture and
to be asked about his research. To offset his materials’ costs,
he had to find educational and research institutes to purchase
his photographs of snowflakes. His speaking tours allowed him
to present his findings before learned audiences.
In 1931, Wilson Bentley died at age 66, sadly from pneumonia,
that he contracted from trudging home through a snowstorm.
Wayne Howe, an archivist for the Jericho Historical Society
gave this lovely tribute in a quotation about Bentley:
“Wilson Bentley regarded snowflakes as manifestations of the
power and majesty of nature.”
Bentley, himself, said this inspiring quote that I copied in
calligraphy and attached to my refrigerator with a few little
pen and ink drawings of snowflakes, surrounding the words:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of
beauty; and it seemed a shame that beauty should not be seen
and appreciated by others.”
Wilson Bentley’s perseverance and his talent of photographing
snowflakes to share with us was a priceless gift to us all!