Monday, November 24, 2014

SnowFlake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley

One of the greatest joys of childhood is the coveted snow day—no school, playing outside, a warm hot chocolate at the end of the day.  As we reach adulthood, snow days mean hyperactive kids, frozen pipes, and treacherous road conditions.  The excitement fades.   Many years ago, there was a man who maintained a childlike wonder of snow from boyhood throughout his twilight years.  Rather than catching snowflakes on his tongue as children do, he caught them on film.  His name was Snowflake Bentley.

Early Life

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on February 9, 1865 on the family dairy farm outside of Jericho, Vermont.  He was interested in nature from an early age.  Nothing captured his attention more than snow, a fortuitous passion in the Snow Belt, where snowfall averages 120” annually.[1]  Bentley’s mother, a former schoolteacher who taught him at home until he was 14, encouraged his interest, despite the skepticism of his father and brother.  For his 15th birthday, Bentley received an old microscope from his mother’s teaching days, and he began to study the natural world in closer detail.  Snowflakes were the most enthralling specimens of all:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.  Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.  I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness.”[2]

He began by sketching the flakes, but they often melted before he was done. After three winters, hundreds of sketches, countless lost snowflakes, and with his mother’s persuasion, Bentley’s father bought him a camera and microscope that were worth nearly as much as the family farm.  The self-taught Bentley invented an apparatus of microscope, camera, and bellows that he would use for the rest of his photomicrography career.  After a season of failure, experimenting with stops, exposure, and focus, Bentley had his first success in 1884 at the age of 19.[3]  Following this achievement he said, “I felt almost like falling to my knees beside the apparatus.  I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.” [4]


Bentley was following in the footsteps of great scientists.  Johannes Kepler first introduced the snowflake’s shape in his 1611 work, On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.  Robert Hooke first illustrated the varied structures of snow crystals in his 1665 work Micrographia.  It was Wilson Bentley, a teenage farmer with no formal scientific training, who pioneered photomicrography and took the first picture of an individual snow crystal.  Bentley showed a single-minded dedication to scientific pursuit, working in the cold and snow every winter for decades.  As a result, in 1924 he was awarded the first ever research grant given by the American Meteorological Society for “40 years of extremely patient work.”[5]  His goal of sharing the beauty of the natural world with others remained a priority. Over the years, he published dozens of general interest and technical articles in various publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic.  Clearly, he did not publish for his own acclaim; in a list of his publications recorded in his notebook, notes like:  Knowledge, London, 1912, I think” were common.[6]

In addition to his work with snowflakes, Bentley also researched frost, dew, and raindrop size. He regularly recorded weather records three times a day, as well as descriptions of 600 auroras over 40 years. He was “first to deduce that rain in thunderstorms has a dual origin, suggested that many snow crystals start growing as frozen cloud droplets, came close to explaining the Bergeron mechanism of rain formation…and proposed what was probably the first hydrometeor-related explanation for cloud electrification.”[7] Modern atmospheric scientists have said that Bentley’s work on cloud physics was decades ahead of his time.


Although Bentley employed good scientific practice, he balanced the technical detail of the scientist with the unbridled enthusiasm of the artist-poet.  Many of his published works contained flowery descriptions that would never be seen in scientific journals today and were uncommon in Bentley’s day as well.  In 1902, he “used the words ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ nearly 40 times in nine pages.”[8]  Elsewhere, “the clouds for a while showered the earth with starry, fern-like gems such as thrill, amaze, and delight snowflake lovers,” and he inquired, “Was ever life history written in more dainty or fairy-like hieroglyphics?”[9]  Despite this seemingly contagious enthusiasm, his neighbors thought that Bentley was either foolish or crazy. While the farmers dreaded the snow, Bentley gleefully anticipated his yearly “crop.”

After each new batch of snowflakes was captured, Bentley spent hours on each negative, cutting away the dark parts around the crystals so the images would be clearer. Though his pictures would not meet modern standards because of the limitations of the equipment of the day, “he did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years,” according to California Institute of Technology physics Professor Kenneth G. Libbrecht.[10]  In 2010, several of his snow crystal photos sold for $4,800 each in New York, more than he made altogether from the images in his lifetime.

Over the years, Bentley’s beautiful photos have inspired scientists, naturalists, quilters, jewelry designers, and other artists. One Icelandic chemist wanted to emulate Bentley’s work without suffering the cold as Bentley had. In the winter of 1979, Tryggvi Emilsson invented a method for snowflake preservation in superglue. If you don’t have access to fancy photomicrography equipment, you can try this Bentley-inspired method at home:

1.       Set microscope slides, coverslips and superglue outside when it's 20F or colder to chill them. Catch flakes on the slides or pick them up with cold tweezers.
2.       Place a drop of superglue on the snowflake. Note: Gel glue doesn't work. Find a brand that's thin and runny.
3.       Drop a coverslip over the glue. Don't press down hard or the flake could tear or melt from the heat of your finger.
4.       Leave the slide in a freezer for one or two weeks and don't touch it with warm hands. The glue must completely harden before the snowflake warms up.[11]

Snowflake Man

In the late 19020s, American Meteorological Society president William J. Humphries arranged for a collection of Bentley’s work to be published.  In 1931McGraw-Hill published Snow Crystals, containing nearly 2500 photomicrographs with an accompanying scientific treatise. He received his copy, the culmination of his life’s work, the day after Thanksgiving 1931. A few weeks later, after a six-mile walk in the snow, he died on December 23 from pneumonia in the same farmhouse where he was born. His gravestone says simply:

The picture of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley that comes to my mind is of a diminutive eccentric, hardworking and bubbling over with excitement. The 120 pound, 5’3” Bentley never made much money from his life’s pursuits, so he continued working the family farm, first with his brother and later with his nephew. Reportedly his side of the house was always cluttered, his piano covered with sheet music that he played for square dances. He had strange habits, such as chewing food 36 times and duplicating the sounds of frogs and birds on his violin. He was also of a gentle nature; the thought of lost crystals that he failed to capture made him want to cry, even after months or years had passed. Yet this kind soul never married, instead devoting hisself to the studies that he would call “one of the little romances of science.”[12]

Bentley lived the life he dreamed. Perhaps he was impoverished and an oddball to his farming neighbors, but he was happy.  “As you can see, I am a poor man, except in satisfaction I get out of my work,” he once said. “In that respect, I am one of the richest men in the world. I wouldn’t change places with Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller for all their millions. I have my snowflakes!”[13]  What a lovely sentiment to reflect upon, especially as the holiday season approaches. With this thought in mind and Snowflake Bentley as our model, perhaps we can reclaim some of the pure joy of childhood snow days.
To experience Bentley’s childlike wonder for yourself, visit Massanutten Regional Library to check out Duncan C. Blanchard’s The Snowflake Man, Bentley’s own Snow Crystals, or a charming picture book like Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley.

by Kristin Noell

[1] Gosnell, 53.
[2] Mullet.
[3] For a detailed description of how his microphotography apparatus worked, see Bentley’s 1922 article “Photographing Snowflakes” in Popular Mechanics.
[4] Mullet.
[5] Gosnell, 54.
[6] Blanchard (2004).
[7] Nelson.
[8] Jamison, 51.
[9] Ibid., 104
[10] Ilnytzky.
[11] Gray.
[12] Gosnell, 55.
[13] Mullet

Bentley, Wilson A. “Photographing Snowflakes.” Popular Mechanics Magazine 37 (1922): 309-312.

Bentley, W.A. and W.J. Humphreys. Snow Crystals. New York: Dover, 1962.

Blanchard, Duncan C. The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 1998.

Blanchard, Duncan C. "Writing and Publishing the Snowflake Man." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 85, no. 5 (May 2004): 740-741.

Gosnell, Mariana. "Snowflake Savant." American History 45, no. 6 (February 2011): 52-56.

Gray, Theodore. "Save A Snowflake for Decades Create a Lasting Cast of Nature's Perfect Crystals with a Drop of Chilled Superglue." Popular Science 268, no. 3 (March 2006): 70.

Ilnytzky, Ula. "Vt. Man's Vintage Snowflake Photos for Sale in NYC," Associated Press Archive, January 21, 2010,

Jamison, Kay Redfield. "Winter’s Miracles of Beauty." The Saturday Evening Post 277, no. 6 (November/December 2005): 50-51,104-105.

Kemp, Martin. "Science in Culture: The Snowflake Man." Nature 444, no. 7122 (December 21, 2006): 1008.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Mullet, Mary B. “The Snowflake Man.” The American Magazine (February 1925).

Nelson, Jon. "The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 81, no.(5): 1085-1086.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!what a great story. Can you imagine following a passion of photographing snowflakes and contributing both to art and science!
    Thanks, Kristin for an uplifting and seasonal story!