How a Vermont farmer proved no snowflakes are the same

No two snowflakes are alike. You probably knew it at an early age.

But you may not know the person who discovered it.

This 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 a snowflake).

After years of trial and error, Bentley was able to capture the intricate details of the snow crystals using a compound microscope attached to his bellows camera. During his lifetime, he went on to photograph more than 5,000 of these “ice flowers” – no duplicates were ever found – and the photographs are still fascinating today.


Each snow crystal has a common six-sided, or hexagonal, structure — that’s how frozen water molecules arrange themselves — but they’re always different from each other, because each snow crystal falls from the sky in its own unique way and forms in the Its surface experiences slightly different atmospheric conditions from down-to-earth.

Some of their arms may appear long and thin. Others may appear short and flat or somewhere in between. The possibilities are endless and fascinating.

“Under the microscope I have found snowflakes to be marvels of beauty; it seems a disgrace that such beauty should not be seen and admired by others,” Bentley said in 1925. “”Each crystal is a masterpiece of design, and no design is repeated. When a snowflake melts, that design is gone forever. Just so much goodness gone, leaving no record. “

Because of his life’s work, Bentley eventually came to be known as “Snowflake” Bentley, and many photographs of him can be seen today at the historic landmark Old Moulin Rouge in Jericho.

The factory’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 could see that in his writing,” said Sue Richardson, Bentley’s great-grandniece and vice-president of the board of the Jericho Historical Society. “Over the years he has written numerous articles for scientific publications and other magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and National Geographic.

“He also kept very detailed weather records and a very detailed diary of every photo he took of the snow crystals – temperature, humidity, which part of the storm came from. He kept very detailed information, and then he kept Both these weather records and the theory he developed about how snow crystals form in the atmosphere proved to be correct.”


Richardson’s grandmother, Bentley’s favorite niece, had his camera and other items that are now part of the exhibit, Richardson said.

“I grew up in the family and heard the stories of Uncle Willie, he was well known in the family,” Richardson said. “It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”

Bentley never had any formal education, she said. His mother was a teacher before they married, so she taught Willie and his younger brother Charles at home.

“When he was 15, his mother gave him an old microscope from teaching,” Richardson said. “He looked at everything under it, from blades of grass, leaves, insects, petals and small rocks. But the first time he saw a snow crystal below, he was mesmerized. Just beautiful, intricate details. He Completely addicted.”

However, capturing these snow crystals on camera is not easy. Richardson said it took Bentley nearly three years to figure out how to pull off a successful photo shoot — and he did it a month before his 20th birthday.

The first hurdle was figuring out how to attach the microscope to the camera. Then there’s the challenge of taking a photo of each crystal before it melts.

“He was working in an unheated log shed at the back of the house. He had to do it,” Richardson said. “Microscope slides, everything, have to be at ambient temperature or they’ll melt” crystals.

Bentley would go outside with a wooden pallet painted black, trying to catch falling snowflakes. He would wear heavy mittens to keep the heat from his hands. He’d hold his breath as he used a broom straw to transfer snow onto cold microscope slides. He would use a turkey feather to press the flakes onto the glass. Light can only come in through a small window in the wooden shed.

“In this work, of course, location is everything, and no one can achieve much except those who live in arctic climates or in regions with long, harsh winters,” Bentley wrote in Popular Mechanics in 1922 wrote.


Bentley died in 1931 at the age of 66, but his legacy lives on with his groundbreaking images, which paved the way for generations of scientific photographers. In addition to the Jericho exhibit, many of his photographs, as well as detailed records and journals, are part of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives.

His image also appears in prints, jewelry and Christmas decorations. A children’s book about him won a Caldecott Medal in 1999.

“It’s fascinating that people are still so fascinated by his work after all these years,” Richardson said. “You grow up knowing that these snowflakes are delicate, beautiful things. When you see the actual photo, you say, ‘Oh my gosh. “”


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