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Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) - the snowflake man

 

Whilst it's not quite time to be thinking or even wishing for snow, 145 years ago the "Snowflake Man" aka Wilson Bentley was born and each and every year he would excitedly wait for the onset of winter and the first snowfall.  Born in Jericho, Vermont in 1865, Wilson Alwyn Bentley became the first person to photograph snow crystals and in doing so, demonstrated that "no two snowflakes are alike".

 

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A talented musician, he grew up on a farm where he laboured hard and nurtured a keen curiosity and interest in the natural world. It was the gift of a microscope on his fifteenth birthday that was to start an obsession with all things microscopic and in particular the beauty of snow crystals; "the building blocks of snowflakes" (Blanchard, 1998).  Bentley spoke of snowflakes being the "miracles of beauty" in that "every crystal was a masterpiece of design; and no one design was ever repeated" and so ultimately when a snowflake melted, the design would be lost forever.

 

By modifying a bellows camera and a new microscope, Bentley caught and photographed thousands of snow crystals and in doing so was to become a pioneer of early photomicrography. With his camera-microscope assembly set up in the family farm's woodshed, he would go out in every snow storm he could to collect snow crystals worthy of photography and then rush back to photograph them (being very careful not to breathe on them so they wouldn't melt!). Quite remarkably, Wilson at the tender age of nineteen was to produce the world's first photomicrographs of snow crystals.

 

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This volume of 355 vintage micro-photographs of snow crystals was purchased by the Trustees of the Museum in 1899.  Accompanying some of the pages there is reference to the date of which "great storm" the photographs were taken in, the outside temperature and also the wind direction; others contain notes on the crystallography and structure of the crystals. The original labels of these notes have been pasted in at the rear of the volume. One label even contains a Knoxville post mark dated 9.30PM, April 15, 1899.

 

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Interestingly, Bentley never copyrighted his work and sold many of his glass plates to schools and colleges for a minimal price in order to share the wonders of what he had recorded.

 

Andrea Hart, Assistant Librarian

 

References & further reading

 

Bentley, W. A. (1899) A series of twenty-one sets of (355) micro-photographs of snow-crystals taken during the winters of 1885-1899, Vermont USA. 74 leaves.

 

Bentley, W. A. (1903) Studies among the snow crystals during the winter of 1901-02, with additional data collected during previous winters. Monthly weather review and annual summary, Vol.30, pp.607-616.

 

Bentley, W. A. & Humphreys, W. J. (1931, cop. 1962) Snow crystals. New York: Dover Publications. 227pp.

 

Blanchard, D. C. (1998) The snowflake man: a biography of Wilson A. Bentley. Virginia: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company. 237pp.

 

Jericho Historical Society : The Official Snowflake Bentley website. Accessed 27th September 2010.