When you think of a snowflake, chances are you picture six crystalline points arranged in perfect symmetry, perhaps twinkling like a star as it falls through the frigid winter air. But did you know that our classic image of a snowflake — emblazoned on sweaters, holiday cards, mugs, and more — owes a great deal to the work of one self-taught Vermont farmer who took the first photo of a snowflake more than a century ago?
A Frosty Hobby
Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on February 9, 1865, in the northern Vermont village of Jericho. Bentley was the kind of child who was good at amusing himself. His mother had been a teacher, and she home-schooled Bentley until he was 14, passing on her love of learning and the natural world. Bentley studied butterflies and spiderwebs and kept a detailed daily record of weather conditions. He also read all his mother’s books (including a set of encyclopedias), and spent hours poring over a small microscope she kept from her days in the classroom. Bentley would later remember his childhood by saying: “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird's wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”
From the start, there was one natural phenomenon that fascinated Bentley the most: snowflakes. “The farm folks, up in this north country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall — which usually came in November — until the last one, which sometimes came as late as May,” he recalled. Bentley spent hours in a cold room at the back of the farmhouse studying snow crystals under the microscope. He attempted to sketch their forms but soon found his pen-and-ink drawings could not adequately capture their complexity. Then, one day he read about cameras that could take pictures through a microscope. He and his mother persuaded his father to buy a bellows camera (an early type of still camera with an accordion-like mid-section) and a microscope objective. Bentley’s father — a dour, no-nonsense type — didn’t entirely see the point, but he gave in to the wishes of his more imaginative wife and son.
Seeing Snowflakes Crystal Clear
Today we should be glad he did, since Bentley would go on to become a pioneer in photomicrography (images taken with a microscope), despite having no formal training in photography. It was only through a frustrating process of trial and error that he figured out how to rig up the microscope to the camera and take pictures of the fragile crystals that fell from the sky. He had to work quickly, in the cold back room of the farmhouse, catching snow on a black card and transferring the flakes to a glass slide using a broom splint before pressing them flat with a feather. His breath, and hands, had to be kept as far from the snowflakes as possible to keep the crystals from melting. Finally, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Bentley managed to take a single, perfect image of a snowflake. "I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it!” he later wrote. “It was the greatest moment of my life.” He was only 19 years old.
Science in the Snow
Bentley would go on to make more than 5,000 images of snowflakes, and it was he who discovered that no two are exactly alike. He grew so obsessed with his hobby that his neighbors nicknamed him “Snowflake” Bentley. To these practical farming folk, Bentley seemed like an oddball; he wasn’t making any money from his work, and there was no obvious practical application. He mostly kept his hobby to himself, even as he amassed hundreds of images and detailed meteorological records, forming theories about how wind and temperature affected the shape of the crystals. But eventually, natural history professor George Henry Perkins of the University of Vermont found out about his work and persuaded Bentley to write an article for Appleton's Popular Scientific Monthly.
Published in 1898, “A Study of Snow Crystals” betrayed Bentley’s passion for his subject, as recorded in Victorian-era prose: “Great as is the charm of outline, the internal ornamentation of snow crystals is far more wonderful and varied,” he wrote. “By means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much may be learned of the history of each crystal, and the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloud-land. Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!”
The Appleton's piece opened up the floodgates: Bentley followed it with 10 scientific articles in the Monthly Weather Review, mostly about snowflakes but also covering rain, dew, and frost. His studies had convinced him that different segments of a storm produced different types of ice crystals, and that their forms were in part a function of temperature. He also explained how the intricacy of a single snow crystal could reveal the changes in temperature it had experienced as it fell to the ground.
Alas, the scientific world greeted his papers with a deafening silence. His research was years ahead of its time, and more credentialed scientists may have been dubious about the work of a home-schooled Vermont farmer who enthused about snowflakes as “miracles of beauty” and “evidence of God’s plan.” There was also a minor scandal, starting in the 1890s, with a German meteorologist who accused Bentley of fraud after failing to re-produce snowflake photos that were nearly as symmetrical or beautiful as Bentley’s. While Bentley did select only the most beautiful specimens for their close-up and employed minor retouching, he seems to have been more curator than huckster.
A Flurry of Recognition
Bentley found a warmer reception in the popular press. His byline appeared in National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and The New York Times Magazine, and he even wrote the entries on frost and snow in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Esteemed institutes like the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences began welcoming him for lectures, and he sold (at little to no profit) lantern slides depicting snowflakes, dew, and frost to dozens of colleges and universities. Jewelers, engravers, and textile designers also began to call on him for his designs. Meanwhile, Bentley continued his detailed weather records and investigations into snow, rain, frost, and other aspects of the natural world. He was rewarded in 1924, when the American Meteorological Society bestowed its first-ever research grant upon Bentley for "40 years of extremely patient work."
By then, 500 of his photographs had also been added to the Smithsonian’s collection, where they could be kept far safer from fire and accident than in his Vermont farmhouse. (A lifelong bachelor and farmer, Bentley never moved out of Jericho.) The final feather in his cap came when U.S. Weather Bureau physicist Dr. William J. Humphreys organized a financial drive to help Bentley create a book of his best work. "Snow Crystals" was published in November 1931 and included 2,300 stunning photomicrographs, mostly of snowflakes but also frost and dew.
A copy of the book arrived in Jericho, but unfortunately, there is no record of Bentley’s response to this proof of his amazing achievement. That December, he walked six miles through a blizzard and caught pneumonia. He died a few days later, on December 23, 1931, at the age of 66. His obituary in The New York Times praised the accomplishments of “the Snowflake Man,” who grew from a boy fascinated and delighted by the natural world into an adult who helped reveal its mysteries in all their beauty.