On a cold January day in 1885, a young Wilson Bentley would do something extraordinary that would forever change the way the world looked at snow. After three years of trial and error and failed attempts, the man who would become known the world over as “Snowflake” Bentley, would capture the first clear photographic image of a single snowflake, or more accurately, a snow crystal.
Nestled in a picturesque valley at the base of Bolton Mountain in Jericho, Vermont, was the farm where Willie was born, the younger of two sons of Edwin and Fannie Bentley. From his earliest days wandering the hills and meadows with his brother Charles, Willie was fascinated with all things in the natural world. Willie was sensitive, artistic, and inquisitive. At the age of 60, he recalled those early days: “I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. She had been a school teacher before she married my father, and she instilled in me her love of knowledge and of the finer things in life. And it was my mother that made it possible for me, at fifteen, to begin the work to which I have devoted my life. She had a small microscope which she had used in her school teaching. When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope – drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower – but always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most.”
During the next two years, young Willie spent many a winter’s day in a cold room at the rear of the farmhouse, peering through the microscope at snow crystals collected from the passing storms. He was fascinated by the beauty and intricacy of the crystals, and attempted to capture this by making drawings of them. He made hundreds of sketches but was painfully aware that what he drew was a poor substitute for what he saw.
No one knows exactly where he got the idea of photographing the snow crystals but Willie figured that if he could combine a microscope with a camera, he could preserve the beautiful snow crystals and share them with the world. The problem was, the camera he needed cost $100! That was a huge amount of money in the early 1880s. But fate was to play a hand. When Fannie’s mother died in 1880, a bequest to Fannie, in the sum of $100, provided her the money needed to pay for the camera. It’s certain she had to do some convincing to persuade the somewhat frugal Edwin to spend that amount of money on something he saw as a “waste of time”, but somehow she managed, and on Willie’s 17th birthday in 1882, they presented him with the camera and microscope that would secure his place in history.
It would be almost three years of trial and error before Willie would figure out the complexities of actually photographing snow crystals. From figuring out how to combine the camera and microscope, creating a “stop” to let in just the right amount of light, and devising a way to quickly focus the image, each step was a challenge. Finally, on January 15, 1885, Willie captured that first clear image of a snow crystal. Many years later he would say, “The day that I developed the first negative made by this method and found it good, I felt almost like falling to my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it! I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life”. Willie was but 19 years old.
Even after he figured out the technique, the process was still daunting, working in the cold of an unheated woodshed so the crystal wouldn’t melt. He wore heavy mittens, so the heat from his hands wouldn’t warm the microscope slide, and literally held his breath while he completed the process.
Perhaps Willie’s greatest personal struggle was to gain acceptance within his community and even within his family. The people who mattered most, his father and brother, and his neighbors in Jericho, thought it was a “waste of time, messing with snowflakes”, and some even thought he was a little “cracked”. When asked toward the end of his life what his neighbors thought of him, Willie replied,
“Oh, I guess they’ve always believed I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand. So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful on the screen. But when the night came for my lecture just six people were there to hear me. It was free, mind you! And it was a fine, pleasant evening, too. But they weren’t interested”.
In spite of this lack of acceptance or acknowledgment, Willie remained just as excited as ever about the world around him. He had written many articles for scientific magazines and now began to write more and more for the general public. The poet and the artist in Willie took over. He had to tell of the beauty and the elegance he saw in the world of the snow crystals, the frost, and the dew. He wrote many articles for such magazines as Country Life, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and The New York Times Magazine. He began to lecture more and more, not only to local groups in surrounding communities but to scientific organizations like the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He prepared boxes of lantern slides of dew, frost, snow crystals, and clouds, and by the 1920’s dozens of colleges and universities had the Bentley slides to show to students in the sciences.
From that first photograph in 1885 until his death, Willie photographed over 5,381 snow crystals. His dream had always been to share his gift with the world, and in 1931 his dream was realized with the publication of “Snow Crystals”, a collection of over 2400 of his finest photographs. In April of that year, in announcing the upcoming publication, Willie wrote “it will serve to further increase the fame of Vermont’s marvelous snowflakes, and to give added millions of people the chance to see them and be thrilled by their beauty”.
Sadly, Willie would not get to enjoy his success for long. He was 66 years old, and though in good health did not get around or do things quite as rapidly as he had before. Winter was fast approaching and the camera had to be ready for the first snow. This was the same camera with which he had taken his first photomicrograph 46 years before. It was old, it was battered, but it still worked. With it he had taken his 5,381st photomicrograph on the first of March of the preceding spring. He looked forward to the winter ahead with as much zest as he had approached that first winter with the camera.
The Winter of 1931 was warmer than normal, and by mid-December Willie had not photographed a single snow crystal. He made routine entries in his logbook of weather conditions. On Monday, the 7th of December, 1931, he finished his entry, “Cold north wind afternoon. Snow Flying.” That was the last entry he was ever to make.
Following a trip to Burlington, he returned to Richmond on the train. It had started to snow and Willie was determined not to miss an opportunity to capture whatever the storm had to offer. He hurriedly started walking home, a distance of about 7 miles, in what quickly turned into a blizzard. Chilled to the bone by the time he got home, he developed a cold which turned into pneumonia, and died on December 23, 1931.
The following day many a newspaper across the country reported his death. But perhaps the most poignant and understanding comments came from his own hometown paper:
“Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.
Truly, greatness blooms in quiet corners and flourishes under strange circumstances. For Wilson Bentley was a greater man than many a millionaire who lives in luxury of which the ‘Snowflake Man’ never dreamed.”
Perhaps his friends and neighbors had understood him after all.
That his work endures is a testament to the dedication and passion of a humble Vermont farmer, who wanted nothing more than to share his discovery with the world, and who taught us that no two snowflakes are alike. As he wrote in 1904, “The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again”.
Article by Sue Richardson
Great grand-niece of Wilson Bentley
Bentley’s cameras and microscopes, along with many of his photographs and other artifacts, are on display at the Snowflake Bentley Exhibit at the Old Red Mill, located on Route 15 in Jericho. This historic grist mill also contains a unique display of antique milling equipment and houses the Old Mill Craft Shop which features the Snowflake Bentley collection of prints, ornaments, and more, along with one-of-a-kind items from a wide range of local artists and crafters.
The museum and shop are operated by the Jericho Historical Society and staffed by volunteers, so hours of operation vary by season. Check the website at jerichohistoricalsociety.org or call (802) 899-3225 for hours and directions.