Wilson Bentley

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Bentley at work.

Wilson Alwyn "Snowflake" Bentley (February 9, 1865 – December 23, 1931) is one of the first known photographers of snowflakes.[1] He perfected a process of catching flakes on black velvet in such a way that their images could be captured before they either melted or sublimated.

Kenneth G. Libbrecht notes that the techniques used by Bentley to photograph snowflakes are essentially the same as used today, and that while the quality of his photographs reflects the technical limitations of the equipment of the era, "he did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years".[2] The broadest collection of Bentley's photographs is held by the Jericho Historical Society in his home town, Jericho, Vermont.

Bentley donated his collection of original glass-plate photomicrographs of snow crystals to the Buffalo Museum of Science. A portion of this collection has been digitized and organized into a digital library.


Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley circa 1902
Bentley snowflake micrograph, 1890

Bentley was born on February 9, 1865, in Jericho, Vermont. He first became interested in snow crystals as a teenager on his family farm. He tried to draw what he saw through an old microscope given to him by his mother when he was fifteen.[3] The snowflakes were too complex to record before they melted, so he attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope and, after much experimentation, photographed his first snowflake on January 15, 1885.[4]

He would capture more than 5,000 images of crystals in his lifetime. Each crystal was caught on a blackboard and transferred rapidly to a microscope slide. Even at subzero temperatures, snowflakes are ephemeral because they sublime.[5]

Bentley poetically described snowflakes as "tiny miracles of beauty" and snow crystals as "ice flowers." Despite these poetic descriptions, Bentley brought a highly objective eye to his work, similar to the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), who photographed seeds, seed pods, and foliage.

In collaboration with George Henry Perkins, professor of natural history at the University of Vermont, Bentley published an article in which he argued that no two snowflakes were alike. This concept caught the public imagination and he published other articles in magazines, including National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and Scientific American. His photographs have been requested by academic institutions worldwide.[5]

In 1931 Bentley worked with William J. Humphreys of the U.S. Weather Bureau to publish Snow Crystals, a monograph illustrated with 2,500 photographs. His other publications include the entry on "snow" in the fourteenth edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.[6]

Bentley also photographed all forms of ice and natural water formations including clouds and fog. He was the first American to record raindrop sizes and was one of the first cloud physicists.

He died of pneumonia at his farm on December 23, 1931,[5] after walking home six miles in a blizzard.[7] Bentley was memorialized in the naming of a science center in his memory at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. His book Snow Crystals was published by McGraw-Hill shortly before his death, and is still in print today. Bentley's lifelong home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Popular culture[edit]

The Caldecott Medal winner in 1999 for the best-illustrated children's book was Snowflake Bentley, which remembers Bentley's life.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Probably the absolutely first photographer of snowflakes was Dr. Johann Heinrich Flögel (1834-1918) from Ahrensburg, Germany in 1879: http://www.shz.de/nachrichten/schleswig-holstein/artikeldetail/article/111/wem-gehoert-die-erste-foto-flocke.html
  2. ^ "Historic Bentley snowflake photos for sale in US", BBC News, 22 January 2010 [1]
  3. ^ Martin, Jacqueline Briggs; Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Snowflake Bentley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1998) ISBN 0-395-86162-4.
  4. ^ Hannavy, John (2007). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. 1. CRC Press. p. 149. ISBN 0-415-97235-3. 
  5. ^ a b c Moreno, Fred. 'Wilson Bentley: The Man Who Studied Snowflakes', Update (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, June/July/August 2005) pp. 8-9.
  6. ^ "Bentley Snow Crystal Collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science: Other Resources". Archived from the original on 2007-06-07. Retrieved 2007-06-19. 
  7. ^ [JHS] Wilson Snowflake Bentley – Photographer of Snowflakes (Jericho Historical Society, 2004). Retrieved July 26, 2005.


  • Thompson, Jean M., Illustrated by Bentley, Wilson A. Water Wonders Every Child Should Know (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1913)
  • Bentley, Wilson A. The Guide to Nature (1922)
  • Bentley, Wilson A. 'The Magic Beauty of Snow and Dew', National Geographic (January 1923)
  • Bentley, Wilson A.; Humphreys, William J. Snow Crystals (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1931)
  • Bentley, Wilson A. "Snow", Encyclopædia Britannica: Vol. 20 (14th ed., 1936; pp. 854–856)
  • Knight, N. (1988) "No two alike?" Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 69(5):496

Other reading[edit]

  • Blanchard, Duncan. The Snowflake Man, A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, (Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 1998) ISBN 0-939923-71-8.
  • Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998) ISBN 0-395-86162-4 (a children's biography illustrated with woodcuts hand tinted with watercolors by Mary Azarian. Awarded the Caldecott Medal.)
  • Stoddard, Gloria May. Snowflake Bentley: Man of Science, Man of God.(Shelburne, VT: New England Press, 1985) ISBN 0-933050-31-3 (Originally published in 1979 by Concordia Publishing House, ISBN 0-570-03620-8).

External links[edit]