The First Snowflake Photographer, Wilson Bentley

By Alice Cary and Chet Raymo
March 12, 2017
Wilson Bentley

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.

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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.

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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!

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Reader Comments

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Wilson Bentley

Beautiful !!! Such a portrait of diligence, perseverance, humility and child-like wonder at Almighty God's creations, rare virtues, indeed, in today's world.
Thank you for this wonderful expose.

Beyond belief

I really dont know where to begin except to say it does my soul good to know he lived long enough to gain recognition for his work.
Such a mind blowing story!

Mr. Wilson Bentley: An Unsung Hero!

Reading this article made my day. It would be an extraordinary story if Mr. Bentley made the effort to photograph 5,000 snowflakes today. It's almost incomprehensible that he had the wherewithal to do that in his time in the late 1800's/early 1900's given the process necessary to develop *any* photograph, let alone something as fragile and fleeting as a snowflake! I can only imagine the thrill he experienced upon capturing the first image that would motivate him to continue on.

[I wonder if computer games and other forms of entertainment providing instant gratification had been invented, if the fifteen-year old Wilson Bentley would have been occupying himself with an old microscope in the first place; I wonder if he carried around a cell phone if he would have been outside one snowy day, his face downward, but his nose not in a screen but observing a snowflake caught on his mitten.]

A final note. To the reader below who tried to throw cold water on this heartwarming story, I have two things to say. First, I suggest that she read The Old Farmer's Almanac article "A GUIDE TO SNOWFLAKES: NO TWO ALIKE?" to gain a general understanding of why snowflakes have the shapes they do. The odds in which a quintillion+ water molecules can be formed into six-sided crystals is astronomically high, creating *very high odds* that no two snowflakes are alike - so high it could certainly be said, "in effect" no two snowflakes are alike. But hang on. That's sort of theoretic. Put the subject into a search bar for more technical explanations of snow crystal formation, and the situation gets "curiouser and curiouser"

Given the reality of an infinite number of (microscopic and macroscopic) conditions under which a snow crystal can be formed, each nuance of difference creating a slightly different structure, if only infinitesimally so, it appears that if you looked closely enough, each snowflake would actually be unique. 

However, secondly, if we merely observe that the reader's comment "You can't prove a negative" is itself a negative, then assuming her logic holds true, her own statement cannot be proven. (How she gets away with throwing about unproven statements as if fact, I don't know! :D) In any event, we can properly refocus attention on the tenacity of a curious teenager and the beauty of the ephemeral snowflake he was able to capture and spent his lifetime sharing with the rest of us.  

I am delighted to read this

I am delighted to read this article. We caught snowflakes on black construction paper when in grade school. How fun if I had also known about the history at that time! I'm sharing this with all my friends and family and on Facebook.

Snowflake photographer

This was a most interesting, informative article. I enjoyed and "pinned" it.

You can't prove a negative.

You can't prove a negative. Therefore, there may be two snowflakes that are alike.

Snowflakes

I enjoyed reading the article on all the hard work Mr. Bentley did on studying snowflakes. He never saw two of the same shape. What a wonderful and creative God to shape each flake different. That show His greatness. Praise the Lord.

Snowflakes

You may be right but so far he is the only one who proved that no two snowflakes are alike . Untill someone proves that there are two that are the same I'll go with this guy.

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