GREENWICH, N.Y. — “No two snowflakes are alike.” This well-known phrase is something many people first learn about in elementary school, and something you see if looking closely during a snowfall. Did you know that this was first discovered by a dairy farmer who was fascinated by snow and weather? “Snowflake” Bentley is credited with becoming the first to photograph individual snowflakes and portraying how each one has a unique shape.
Wilson Alwyn Bentley was fittingly born in the depths of winter on February 9, 1865 in Jericho, Vermont. Bentley would live and work on his family’s farm in Jericho his entire life. From an early age Bentley displayed an interest in the natural world, and in weather and water in particular. Bentley did not receive any formal schooling until he was fourteen, however his mother was a former schoolteacher and she homeschooled him and encouraged his scientific interests.1
When he was fifteen, he was gifted an old microscope which his mother used to use in her teaching, and Bentley set about observing anything he could find. It was through the microscope that he developed a greater interest in snow flakes which he referred to as “snow crystals.” In between farm chores Bentley spent many winter days collecting and observing the snowflakes under the microscope and attempting to draw their patterns.2
Wanting to get clearer images Bentley was able to convince the family to purchase a camera so he could photograph the snowflakes. The camera cost around $100 dollars and considering that land was sold for around $3 an acre at that time, it was a major expenditure for the family requiring the use of a family inheritance. Though he complied and purchased the camera, Bentley’s father never approved of his interest feeling that a farmer’s sole duty should be to farm.3
The Bentley farm was situated in the perfect spot for Wilson’s endeavor, as Jericho is located in Vermont’s “Snowbelt” which receives upwards of 100 inches of snow each year. With abundant snowfall opportunities, Bentley spent the next two years trying to capture images of individual snowflakes. After much trial and error, he found success on January 15, 1885 when he captured his first photograph of a snowflake. Bentley later referred to the moment as the greatest day of his life!4
Bentley developed a system for photographing the snowflakes. Set up in an unheated woodshed, Bentley would stand out during a snowfall and collect snowflakes using a black painted tray. When he found a flake that interested him, Bentley would move it with a broom straw to a microscope slide. After inspection he would carefully press a feather over the snowflake while moving the slide to the camera where he would then take the picture. This all had to be done rather quickly or else the snowflake would melt completely or enough to lose its shape.5 He did not realize it, but Bentley was pioneering in the area of photomicrography, or the photography of very small objects.6
As an adult, Bentley eventually took over operating the farm with his brother. Bentley, his brother and his brother’s wife and eight children all lived in the same house. Through their partnership the Bentleys grew their dairy operation from 10 cows to 20 cows, as well as growing other crops. While his passion was more for his snowflake studies which made him a bit of an oddity to those in his community, Bentley was a diligent and respected farmer.7
For over 10 years Bentley continued photographing snowflakes each winter without sharing his findings. Through the year his studies expanded to include frost, ice, raindrops and dew. Eventually a professor from the University of Vermont caught wind of Bentley’s work and convinced him to share it. So, in 1898 Bentley wrote his first article on snowflakes for the magazine Popular Scientific Monthly. In subsequent years Bentley would write around 60 articles for all kinds of publications ranging from Monthly Weather Review and Country Life to National Geographic and the New York Times.8
Through his study and meticulous weather records Bentley came up with several theories regarding snowflakes. Some of his deductions included that different segments of a storm produce different type of snowflakes, the shape of a snowflake is determined by air temperature, the circulation in a storm could be determined by the shape of the snowflakes, and changes in the shape of a snowflake reflected the changes in air temperature as the snowflake descended to the ground. Some of these hypotheses would be proven true by scientists later showing that Bentley’s work was ahead of its time.9
In the early 1900s Bentley started distributing his photos and several colleges purchased some to use for teaching purposes. In 1904 he donated a set of 500 slides to the Smithsonian Institute in the hopes that they would be preserved and protected from fire or other kind of accident. The museum still has these slides today.10 Jewelers, engravers, and textile makers, including the famous Tiffany & Co. in New York City, also sought his slides to use for their designs.11 As his pictures were distributed further Bentley gained more notoriety and he earned nicknames like “Snowflake Bentley” and “The Snowflake Man.”
By 1920 more and more scientists were accepting and interested in his work. He was elected one of the first members of the American Meteorological Society in 1920. In 1924 the same group awarded him their first ever research grant to continue his work.12 He also occasionally lectured at higher learning institutions. In 1931 he published his first and only book on his work with the help of United States Weather Bureau chief physicist William Humphreys titled Snow Crystals. The book featured 2,500 snowflake photos that he had taken throughout the years.13
Snowflake Bentley passed away on December 23, 1931. By the time of his death, he had photographed over 5,000 snowflakes, each different from another!14 Bentley never made much money from his snowflake discoveries and remained a farmer his entire life. However, he made a contribution that is still appreciated in the meteorological community today. Whether you love the snow or hate it, Bentley helped reveal the once hidden beauty of snowflake.
3 Andrea Shea, “How Vermont’s ‘snowflake man’ created the first-ever images of fleeting snow crystals,” last modified February 25, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/news/2022/02/25/snowflake-man-photographs-wilson-bentley.
5 Andrea Shea, “How Vermont’s ‘snowflake man’ created the first-ever images of fleeting snow crystals,” last modified February 25, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/news/2022/02/25/snowflake-man-photographs-wilson-bentley.
6 “Wilson A. Bentley: Pioneering Photographer of Snowflakes,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, accessed January 5, 2023, https://siarchives.si.edu/history/featured-topics/stories/wilson-bentley-pioneering-photographer-snowflakes.
10 “Wilson A. Bentley: Pioneering Photographer of Snowflakes,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, accessed January 5, 2023, https://siarchives.si.edu/history/featured-topics/stories/wilson-bentley-pioneering-photographer-snowflakes.
11 Andrea Shea, “How Vermont’s ‘snowflake man’ created the first-ever images of fleeting snow crystals,” last modified February 25, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/news/2022/02/25/snowflake-man-photographs-wilson-bentley.
12 The Editors, “The First Snowflake Photographer, Wilson Bentley,” last modified December 21, 2022, https://www.almanac.com/first-snowflake-photographer-wilson-bentley.
14 Wilson A. Bentley: Pioneering Photographer of Snowflakes,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, accessed January 5, 2023, https://siarchives.si.edu/history/featured-topics/stories/wilson-bentley-pioneering-photographer-snowflakes.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.