From the earliest memories of our childhood, many of us can remember hearing the phrase “no two snowflakes are alike”. This discovery was made in the small rural town of Jericho, Vermont by Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931).
A self educated farmer, Bentley attracted world attention with his pioneering work in the area of photomicrography, most notably his extensive work with snow crystals (commonly known as snowflakes). By adapting a microscope to a bellows camera, and years of trial and error, he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885.
He would go on to capture more than 5000 snowflakes during his lifetime, not finding any two alike. His snow crystal photomicrographs were acquired by colleges and universities throughout the world and he published many articles for magazines and journals including, Scientific American and National Geographic.
In 1885, at the age of twenty, 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 fifteen 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 his son, Wilson combined it with his microscope, and went on to make his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal on January 15, 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.
Bentley also devised his own processing methods. In addition to developing the original image, he also created a post-development process to enhance it. Since each photograph was taken of a white snow crystal against a white background, Bentley was dissatisfied with the initial photograph. He felt he could improve the contrast and enhance the detail if he presented the crystal against a dark background. To do this, he painstakingly scraped away the dark emulsion surrounding the snow crystal image from a duplicate of the original negative using a sharp penknife and steady hand. The altered image was then carefully placed upon a clear glass plate and then printed, giving it a dark background. Even after years of practice, this post-production process often took as long as four hours for a complex snow crystal.
Although his father thought Wilson’s snow photography a lot of nonsense and not the proper thing for a farmer to do, Wilson broke unique ground in the early days of modern meteorology as well as microscopic photography. His biographer, cloud physicist Duncan Blanchard, dubbed him “America’s First Cloud Physicist”. The Burlington Free Press wrote in a Christmas Eve obituary for Bentley:
Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.
“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.” – Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley 1925