Is there any truth to the old saw, “No two snowflakes are alike”? Wilson A. Bentley, a farmer and amateur meteorologist, sought to answer that question, dedicating himself to observing flakes of snow for 50 years.
Bentley was born in 1865 and raised on a farm near Jericho, Vt., where his mother, a former teacher, homeschooled him and his brother when they weren’t doing farm chores.
On his 15th birthday, Bentley’s mother 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 the instrument; this was the beginning of a fascination that lasted the rest of his life.
Fussing With Snowflakes
When he was 17, Bentley asked his parents to buy him a new, better microscope and a camera. His father argued that “fussing with snowflakes” was a waste of time. Finally, he gave in.
Bentley 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. On January 15, 1885, he did it, creating the world’s first photomicrograph.
Every winter for the rest of his life, Bentley photographed and studied snowflakes in an unheated room in the back of the house.
The process was difficult and cold. Outdoors, he collected snowflakes on a wooden tray that was painted black. 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.
“Look and Marvel”
Whenever it snowed, Bentley caught and 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.
Taking photomicrographs was only half of a long process. In those days, glass plates were used to take photographs. Bentley developed the plates in a darkroom under some stairs and then carried the plates to a nearby stream to wash them. Sometimes he did this at night, in the dark.
In warm months, Bentley presented outdoor slide shows about snowflakes to family and friends. He shined a kerosene lamp through a projector that held his glass plates. The lamplight 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.”
“Some Wonderful Prize”
Bentley shared his snowflakes with anyone who was interested. He sold prints of his photomicrographs for 5 cents each. He wrote articles for scientists and for magazines such as National Geographic.
Occasionally, he felt discouraged that few people seemed to care about his work. Still, he never stopped. At age 65, he photographed his 5,000th snowflake.
Slowly, people became interested. Reporters sometimes appeared at his door. People began to call him “the Snowflake Man” and “Professor Bentley.” Jewelry makers copied the snowflake designs.
In 1920, Bentley was elected as one of the first members of the American Meteorological Society, which later awarded him its first research grant in 1924.
Bentley’s proudest moment came in 1931 upon publication of his book Snow Crystals, which contained 2,453 of his photographs.
A few weeks later, on December 7, he wrote in his weather notebook: “Cold north wind afternoon. Snow flying.” This was to be his last entry. He became sick and died of pneumonia on December 23.
Bentley found that snowflakes were not alike and could, in fact, be very different!
How many different types of snowflakes exist? See our page on snowflake shapes!