Snowflake Man became the first person to photograph a snowflake on January 18, 1885. A Vermont farmer, Wilson Bentley was just 19 years old when he started the concept that no two snowflakes are identical. Obsessed by the tiny snow crystals that combine into endless variations of hexagonal structures, Snowflake Man eagerly awaited snowstorms every winter for the rest of his life. He photographed more than 5,000 over 47 years.
In 1925 Bentley wrote: “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake maleted, that design was lost forever.”
Following are Eight sparkling highlights from the life of Snowflake Man, Wilson Bentley.
1-The Greatest Moment Of His Life
Bentley later wrote about his first snowflake success.
“The day that I developed the first negative made by this method and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.”
2-He Was Self-taught
Snowflake Man was born a farmer in Jericho, Vermont in 1865. Vermont History Explorer writes:
“He lived in the same farmhouse all of his life. When he was 15 years old, his mother gave him an old microscope. He caught snowflakes and looked at them under the microscope. He tried to draw the designs of the snow crystals, but they melted or evaporated too fast.”
Feeding his obsession, his parents spent $100 to buy him a camera. He tried for two years until he finally made his first successful photograph. Eventually, he took photomicrographs by adapting his microscope to a bellows camera.
He set up the cumbersome invention outside an unheated woodshed where he had to work quickly in snowstorms. Wearing thick mittens, he would catch crystals on a tray, choose one that caught his eye, carefully move it to a slide and over to the camera. All of this had to be done before the snowflake melted.
3-He Was A Citizen Scientist
Each winter Snowflake Man observed frost, recorded the weather and wrote copiously in his notebooks. In the summer, he studied dewdrops and rain clouds. He used his observations to learn more about the weather.
Formal education in the sciences was not as available to everyone as it is today. But Citizen Science was important through the 1800s. Just a few examples:
Fern fans wrote and sketched in journals that they shared with book publishers, other fern maniacs and newspapers. Margaret Norris identified a new species of cicadas in 1850. Wildflower Activists recorded their observations in the late 1800s. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman encouraged people to count birds on Christmas rather than killing them. The first Victorian Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was a huge success with 27 volunteers counting birds in the United States and Canada. And Climate Change was first observed by Eunice Foote in 1856.
4-Bentley’s Work Was Eventually Respected And Published
The scientific community ignored his work for two decades. Although Snowflake Man did not have formal training, his scientific methodology and diligence eventually won him a place in honored institutions. Leading scientists studied his work and publish it in numerous scientific articles and magazines.
Snowflake Man outlined his detailed observations in articles and books including: Studies Among the Snow Crystals During The Winter of 1901-1902.
In 1899 London’s Natural History Museum purchased 355 of Bentley’s original prints. The collection has been digitized and is now available online.
In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to Secretary Samuel P. Langley. These images are now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
A book including 2,000 of his best images was published in 1931.
5-His Work Inspired Artists As Well
His images sparked the imaginations of many people. Many used them as patterns for needlework and other crafts.
Even Louis Comfort Tiffany bought a set of prints from the Snowflake Man to use for his designs.
6-Wilson Bentley’s Observations Feed Snowflake Science Today
Snowflakes begin to form when droplets of extremely cold water freeze onto particles of dust or pollen in the sky, creating ice crystals. As the primary ice crystals fall toward the ground, water vapor freezes onto them. New crystals build, creating six-armed snowflakes.
Like human lives, each snowflake follows its own path to the ground that takes it through unique atmospheric conditions. Each fits roughly into a general category, such as needles, prisms and lacy patterns. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers a detailed explanation here. (NOAA)
7- One In A Septillion
Some scientists questioned Wilson Bentley’s conclusion that no two snowflakes are identical. Yes, two snowflakes might be similar. But Snowflake Man was correct in that it is unlikely that they could be identical in molecular structure and appearance.
According to Reconnect With Nature, an estimated 1 septillion snowflakes fall each winter.
“What’s a septillion, you ask. It’s a 1 followed by 24 zeros. Another way to think of it is that 1 septillion is the equivalent of a trillion trillion.” (ReconnectWithNature.org)
With those odds, it’s safe to say Snowflake Man got it right.
8–His Great Grandniece Is Caretaker Of His Legacy
Sue Richardson, Bentley’s great grandniece oversees his work through the Jericho Historical Society at Old Red Mill. The museum holds, among other things, the original microscope/camera device that Snowflake Man devised to take the world’s first photo of a snowflake.
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