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Wilson Bentley, the first snowflakes photographer

4 min read

Is there any truth to the old saying, “No two snowflakes are alike”?
Well, a man named Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a farmer and amateur meteorologist, sought to answer that question, dedicating himself to observing flakes of snow for 50 years.
He described them as “tiny miracles of beauty” and snow crystals as “ice flowers” but, despite these poetic descriptions, he brought an empirical method to his work and reached, over the years, really great results.

Wilson was born on February 9 1865 and raised on a farm near Jericho, Vermont, where his mother, a former teacher, homeschooled him and his brother when they weren’t doing farm chores.
On his 15th birthday, she gave him the use of an old microscope.
It was snowing that day, and the boy succeeded in getting a glimpse of a six-sided snowflake with his precious instrument.
This was the beginning of a fascination that lasted the rest of his life.
He tried to draw what he saw through his old microscope, but the snowflakes were too complex to record before they melted.
When he was 17, he asked his parents to buy him a new, better microscope and also a camera.
Despite his father argued that “fussing with snowflakes” was a waste of time, finally he gave in.
Wilson built a wooden frame to hold the new equipment and then spent 2 years figuring out how to take a picture of a snowflake under a microscope.
And, on January 15, 1885, he did it, creating the world’s first photomicrograph.

Thus every winter for the rest of his life, he photographed and studied snowflakes in an unheated room in the back of the house.
The process was difficult and, above all, cold. Outdoors, he collected snowflakes on a wooden tray that was painted black and, once inside, while still wearing big mittens to keep his hands warm, he used a straw plucked from a broom to pick up the snowflake and place it on a microscope slide.
Sometimes he nudged the snowflake into place with a feather.
Then, being careful not to breathe on the flake, he quickly examined and photographed it.
Whenever it snowed, Wilson captured flakes, sometimes working all night.
He found that most snowflakes had six sides, but others looked like triangles, spools of thread, or columns, but no two were alike.

But taking photomicrographs was only half of a long process.
In those days, glass plates were used to take photographs, and Wilson developed them in a darkroom under some stairs. Then he carried the plates to a nearby stream to wash them, and sometimes he did this at night, in the dark.
In warm months, he presented outdoor slide shows about snowflakes to family and friends.
He shined a kerosene lamp through a projector that held his glass plates, with the lamplight that cast the snowflake images onto a bedsheet hung up to serve as a screen.

“The mysteries of the universe are about to reveal themselves,” he would say. “Look and marvel.”

Wilson shared his snowflakes with anyone who was interested, and he even sold prints of his photomicrographs for 5 cents each.
Occasionally, he felt discouraged that few people seemed to care about his work. Still, he never stopped.
In collaboration with George Henry Perkins, professor of natural history at the University of Vermont, he published an article in which he argued that no two snow crystals were alike. This concept caught the public imagination and he published other articles in magazines, including National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and Scientific American. His photographs have been requested by academic institutions worldwide.
At age 65, when he photographed his 5,000th snowflake, people became more and more interested, with reporters who sometimes appeared at his door and jewelry makers who copied the snowflake designs.
People began to call him fondly “the Snowflake Man” and “Professor Bentley”.
In 1920, he was elected as one of the first members of the American Meteorological Society, which later awarded him its first research grant in 1924, but his proudest moment came in 1931 upon publication of his book Snow Crystals, which contained 2,453 of his photographs.
He also photographed all forms of ice and natural water formations including clouds and fog, and he was the first American to record raindrop sizes, as well as one of the first cloud physicists.
A few weeks later, on December 7, he wrote in his weather notebook: “Cold north wind afternoon. Snow flying.”
But, sadly, this was to be his last entry.
He became sick and died of pneumonia at his farm on December 23 of the same year.

His book Snow Crystals, published by McGraw-Hill shortly before his death, is still in print today, while his lifelong home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And, if Wilson A. Bentley found that snowflakes were never alike, It’s a myth as it seems that, in 1988, Nancy Knight, a scientist at the National Center for Atmosphere Research in Colorado, found two identical snowflakes that came from a storm out of Wisconsin…

Images from web – Google Research