Who invented the Technique for Photographing Snowflakes

The Snowflake Man Wilson A. Bentley. Inventor of Technique for Photographing Snowflakes. On January 15, 1885, a self-taught 19-year old captured the first photograph of an ice crystal through a microscope and forever changed the way people look at snow.

Born on a farm in Jericho, Vermont, on Feb. 9, 1865, Wilson Bentley attended school only briefly when he was 14, but he was far from uneducated.

His mother, a former teacher, nurtured a strong learning environment at home and young Wilson read through all her books and encyclopedias. When Mrs. Bentley gave him a microscope for his fifteenth birthday, she could not have imagined that, in only a few years, her son would give the world the magnified image of a snowflake and eventually become known as the “Snowflake Man”.

What Snowflakes Look Like

Using his microscope to study feathers, pebbles, flower petals and drops of water, Wilson longed to capture and look at an ice crystal (commonly known as a snowflake). But the object of his desire remained elusive despite many painstaking efforts, including Wilson holding his breath to prevent his subjects evaporating. He finally devised a way to see an ice crystal through the microscope by placing it on a blackboard and maintaining sufficiently cold temperatures in his workspace. He was dumbfounded by what he saw.

Bentley was stunned by the complex beauty of the unique ice crystal patterns and perplexed by the apparent constancy of six arms (dendrites) shared by each. He tried to recreate their forms by making hundreds of drawings, but found these illustrations lacked the beauty he saw under the microscope. It didn’t help that his models often melted before he finished his sketches.

Photomicography and Ice Crystals

Bentley begged his father to buy a camera, no doubt aware of the recent invention of photomicrography (the process of taking a picture through a microscope) that caused a sensation at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. After much convincing, his father relented.

Bentley endured two years of trial and error, learning from every failure and refusing to give up. During a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, a month away from his twentieth birthday, he finally captured the magnified image of a single snowflake in a photograph.

When interviewed for The American Magazine in 1925 (“The Snowflake Man” ), Bentley, at age 60, still rated that event as the greatest moment of his life. He also explained why he happily spent every subsequent winter of his life out in the cold photographing snowflakes.

“Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated,” he said. “When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

During one winter alone he captured photographs of over 200 snowflakes.

Snowflake Imagery

Bentley shared his images with teachers, scientists and artisans, never copywriting the images or making any money from them. To his delight, snowflake imagery based on his slides appeared on wallpaper, textiles and porcelain and jewelry. Word spread and requests for prints came from as far away as China.

Without any meteorological training or formal education, his findings about snow, rain and weather patterns were decades ahead of his time. Detailed notes and barometrical analysis gave him such a thorough understanding of the climate that he could look at a single snowflake and know the temperature outside.

In March of 1931, “Snowflake” Bentley took his last picture (image number 5,381) using with the same camera his father bought him almost 50 winters before. In December of that same year, aged 66, he died of pneumonia, contracted after walking home in a snowstorm.

His legacy is a library of detailed journals and published articles and over 5000 glass-slide images. More important, he succeeded in making the image of a snowflake a global celebrity.

To view Bentley’s slides and journals, visit the Bentley Snow Crystal Collection at the Buffalo Museum of Science or meander through the Jericho Historical Society online giftshop for nifty snowflake-themed prints and clothing.

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