No two snowflakes are alike. You probably learned that at an early age.
But you may not know the man who discovered it.
The lesson can be traced back to Wilson Bentley, a farmer from Jericho, Vermont, who in 1885 became the first person to successfully photograph a single snow crystal – the ice that makes up snowflakes.
After years of trial and error, Bentley was able to capture the intricate details of snow crystals using a compound microscope attached to his bellows camera. He went on to photograph more than 5,000 of these “ice flowers” in his lifetime – never finding any duplicates – and the images still fascinate to this day.
Each snow crystal shares a common six-sided or six-pointed structure – that’s how frozen water molecules arrange themselves – but they will always vary from each other because each one falls from the sky in its own unique way and experiences slightly different atmospheric conditions on its journey down to Earth .
Some of their arms may look long and skinny. Others may appear short and flat or somewhere in between. The possibilities are endless and fascinating.
“Under the microscope I discovered that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a pity that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” said Bentley in 1925. “Each crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was lost forever. Just so much beauty was gone, leaving no records.”
Bentley eventually became known as “Snowflake” Bentley because of his life’s work, and many of his pictures can be seen today at the Old Red Mill, a historic landmark in Jericho.
The mill’s Snowflake Bentley exhibit also includes his cameras and microscopes.
“He had the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet, and you can see that in his writings,” said Sue Richardson, Bentley’s great-uncle who is vice president of the Jericho Historical Society board of directors. “He wrote many, many articles over the years for scientific publications and for other magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and National Geographic.
“He also kept very detailed weather records and very detailed journals of every photograph he took of a snow crystal—the temperature, the humidity, what part of the storm it came from. He kept very detailed information, and then these weather records that he kept and the theories that he developed about how snow crystals formed in the atmosphere, they were true.”
Richardson’s grandmother was Bentley’s favorite niece, Richardson said, and she had his cameras and other items that are now part of the exhibit.
“I grew up with this in my house and hearing the stories about Uncle Willie, as he was known in the family,” Richardson said. “It’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.”
Bentley never had any formal education, she said. His mother had been a teacher before her marriage, so she tutored Willie and his brother Charles at home.
“When he was 15, his mother had given him an old microscope from her teaching days,” Richardson said. “And he looked at everything under it, from blades of grass and leaves and insects and flower petals and little bits of rock. But the first time he looked at a snow crystal under it, he was hooked. Just the beauty, the intricate detail. He was completely hooked.”
However, it was not easy to get those snow crystals on camera. It took nearly three years, Richardson said, for Bentley to figure out how to successfully photograph one — which he did just a month before his 20th birthday.
The first hurdle was figuring out how to attach the microscope to the camera. And then there was the challenge of getting each crystal photographed before it could melt away.
“He worked in an unheated woodshed at the back of the house. He had to, Richardson said. “And the slides, everything, had to be at an ambient temperature, or they would melt” the crystal.
Bentley went outside with a wooden tray painted black and tried to catch falling flakes. He would wear heavy gloves so the heat from his hands wouldn’t transfer. He held his breath as he used a broomstick to transfer the snow to the cold microscope slides. He would push the flakes down to the glass with a turkey feather. The only light came from a small window in the woodshed.
“Of course, location is everything in this work, and none but those who live in arctic climates or in regions with long and severe winters can accomplish much,” wrote Bentley in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1922.
Bentley died in 1931 at the age of 66, but his legacy lives on through his pioneering images that helped pave the way for generations of scientific photographers. In addition to the Jericho exhibit, many of his photos, as well as detailed records and journals, are part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
His images can also be found on prints, jewelry and Christmas decorations. A children’s book about him won the Caldecott Medal in 1999.
“It’s fascinating that all these years later people are still so captivated by his work,” Richardson said. “You just grew up knowing that these snowflakes were just delicate, beautiful things. And when you see the actual photographs, you go, ‘Oh my God.'”