Wilson Bentley – Snowflake Expert of the 1800s

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1901
Wilson Bentley

Learn about Vermont’s “Snowflake Bentley,” also known as the “Snowflake Man,” who was a pioneer in microphotography and became a leading expert on snowflakes.

Wilson A. Bentley’s passion was weather and moisture, particularly snowflakes. Learn about how his passion was viewed by others, his perseverance despite many difficulties, and how he dedicated his life to making stunning pictures of single snowflakes.

Wilson Bentley Discovers the Beauty of Snowflakes

On February 9, 1865, Wilson Bentley was born in Jericho, Vermont. He grew up on a farm in an area known as part of the “snowbelt,” because the area would typically experience around 120 inches of snowfall each year. At a young age, Wilson Bentley would observe the nature around him, and he quickly became fascinated with the intricate designs of snowflakes after looking at them through an old microscope that his mother, his only teacher, gave to him. While other kids played in the snow Willy Bentley studied its amazing details.

Beginning at age 15, Willie Bentley wanted to find a way to share that beauty with others and began drawing snow crystals each winter and drew one hundred each winter for three year. Drawing snowflakes proved to be rather difficult because they would melt before he could complete his artwork. At age 16, Bentley learned of a camera with a microscope that he believed would enable him to take pictures of snowflakes.

Snowflake Bentley Uses Microphotography to Capture Snowflake Images

The camera was expensive, with a price that would buy his father’s whole herd of ten cows. One year later, his parents bought the special camera with money they had saved over the years. This camera could magnify objects up to 3,600 times their normal size and would help Wilson to develop his style of microphotography.

Wilson Bentley’s first attempts at photographing single snowflakes were far from perfect. They appeared as shadows, and the winter ended without a single good snowflake picture. Not one to give up, Bentley began experimenting the next winter. He tried opening the lens a tiny bit, letting only a small amount of light in to the negative for several seconds, and finally one day in that second winter, he was finally able to share a good snowflake picture with the world.

The Snowflake Man Perseveres to Produce Many Snowflake Pictures – His Gift to the World

His efforts were time-consuming as he tried to collect single snowflakes on a tray. Sometimes the flakes would be broken and bent, and he would have to brush off the snowflakes and begin again until he found the perfect specimen for photographing. The weather and even his own breath would work against him as either might melt the delicate snow crystal before he could take the photograph.

Some winters, he was able to make only a few good snowflake pictures, while other years, he was able to make hundreds of pictures of single snow crystals. One Valentine’s Day in 1928, Bentley photographed over one hundred snowflakes during a single two-day storm.

Snowflake pictures, Wilson Bentley’s gift to the world, was not particularly appreciated by many living near him. They saw snow for months at a time…why dedicate so much time to something so common? Some around him later began to admire the beauty of snowflakes as well as he projected his pictures onto a bedsheet with a snowflake slideshow. He gave some of his pictures away as gifts and sold others to colleges and universities, but he never became rich. His $4,000 income was dwarfed by the $15,000 he spent on his passion by 1926.

Wilson Bentley, with the help of funds raised by other scientists, published his best 2400 photographs in a book entitled Snow Crystals in 1931 when he was sixty-six years old. He had captured over 5,000 masterpieces of natural snow art for others to admire and enjoy and never found any two snowflakes that were exactly alike. On December 23, 1931, Wilson Bentley, the Snowflake Man, died of pneumonia after walking home six miles in a blizzard to do what he loved best: take pictures of snowflakes.

Wilson Bentley – Snowflake Connoisseur

Wilson Bentley, the Snowflake Man, was able to share his passion of snowflakes with the world. With help from his parents, who sacrificed much to purchase a camera and supplies, and other scientists, who believed in his tireless dedication, Wilson Bentley captured the stunning and unique intricacies of snowflakes for the world to see.

Sources:

  1. Jericho Historical Society web site entitled Original Wilson Bentley
  2. Snowflake Bentley [1998, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN: 0-395-86162-4], by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.
  3. Wilson A. Bentley: The Snowflake Man