Wednesday 2 January 2013

The Snowflake Man


Images courtesy Wilson Bentley circa 1902.

"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 every repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."

Wilson Bentley was born in the closing months of the Civil War on a farm in Jericho, Vermont.  Nestled in a valley beside Bolton Mountain, Bentley's farm was the perfect place to study snow.  And that is exactly what he did.  Homeschooled by his mom until he was 14 years old, young Wilson used her old microscope and tried to sketch a snowflake. After making hundreds of attempts, Wilson decided he needed a camera to catch the image of a snowflake before it melted.  Urged on by his mom, Wilson asked his Dad if he would buy him a bellows camera, even though the latter thought studying snowflakes was nonsense.  Even so, the senior Bentley agreed and with his new camera, along with the old microscope, Wilson was able to capture the first photograph of a snowflake in 1885.  The young scientist was fascinated with the "little miracles of beauty" (snowflakes) and the "ice flowers" (snow crystals).  His biggest discovery was that no two snowflakes were alike, convincing him that only the Great Creator could be responsible.  

Wilson continued to photograph snowflakes every winter, the season usually starting in November and often lasting until May.  He was considered a pioneer in micrography.  His photographs were considered so good that no one bothered to capture the likeness of a snowflake for another 100 years.  With little formal education, Mr. Bentley went on to write 60 scholarly articles for publications like National Geographic about snowflakes and other forms of precipitation.  His first article was published in 1898 in the Popular Scientific Monthly.  In total, he produced 5000 photos of snowflakes and his collection now sits in the Buffalo Museum of Science.  Late in life, he published a book called Snow Crystals which included 2500 photographs.

How ironic that someone who made a living with snow should die at the hands of a snowstorm.  In 1931, Wilson was forced to walk home 6 miles in a blizzard.  He made it safely, but then retreated to his bed, passing away from pneumonia two days before Christmas.  He will forever be remembered as "The Snowflake Man".  

Note:  For more information, read the picture book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin which won a Caldecott Medal  in 1999.

Photo of Wilson Bentley courtesy 

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