In 1885, at the age of 20, Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a farmer who would live all his life in the small town of Jericho in Vermont, gave the world its first ever photograph of a snowflake. Throughout the following winters, until his death in 1931, Bentley would go on to capture over 5000 snowflakes, or more correctly, snow crystals, on film. Despite the fact that he rarely left Jericho, thousands of Americans knew him as The Snowflake Man or simply Snowflake Bentley. Our belief that “no two snowflakes are alike” stems from a line in a 1925 report in which he remarked: “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.”
It started with a microscope his mother gave him at age 15 which opened the world of the small to young Wilson. A lover of winter, he made plans to use his microscope to view snowflakes. His initial investigations proved both fascinating and frustrating as he tried to observe the short-lived flakes. So that he could share his discoveries, he began by sketching what he saw, accumulating several hundred sketches by his seventeenth birthday. When his father purchased a camera for Bentley, he combined it with his microscope, and went on to make his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal on 15 January 1885.
In addition to the development of the hardware, Bentley also had to devise a protocol to capture a snow crystal and transport it with minimal damage to the camera’s field of vision. What he found worked best was to capture the crystals on a cool velvet-covered tray. Taking care not to melt the crystal with his breathe, he identified a suitable subject and lifted it onto a pre-cooled slide with a thin wood splint from his mother’s broom and nudged it into place with a turkey feather. The slide was then carried into his photographic shed and placed under the microscope. The back-lit image was focused using a system of strings and pulleys he devised to accommodate his mittened hands. Once focused, the sensitized glass plate – the “film” – was exposed and stored for further processing, development and printing.
With 70-75 photographs per storm and notes on the conditions under which they were collected, Bentley accrued a considerable understanding of snow. In 1897, he became acquainted with Professor George Perkins, a professor of geology at the University of Vermont, and they prepared the first paper on snow crystals published in the May 1898 issue of Appleton’s Popular Scientific entitled “A Study of Snow Crystals.”
From his large data archive, Bentley’s analysis convinced him that the form the ice crystal took (hexagonal plate, six-sided star, hexagonal column, needle, etc) was dependent on the air temperature in which the crystal formed and fell. Nearly three decades would pass before Ukichiro Nakaya in Japan would confirm this hypothesis.
He also wanted to promote his work for its beauty, and thus submitted articles and delivered lectures that focused on his snow photography over the years. His lectures were popular, and from them he was dubbed The Snowflake Man and Snowflake Bentley by the newspapers. Over one hundred articles were published in well-known newspapers and magazines such as The Christian Herald, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and the American Annual of Photography. His best photographs were in demand from jewelers, engravers and textile makers who saw the beauty in his work.
Adapted from Keith C. Heidorn, Ph.D, The Snowflake Man of Vermont @ 2011 by The Public Domain Review.
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