If you’ve never heard of Snowflake Bentley, then I’ve got a treat for you! William A. Bentley was an amazingly passionate man who dedicated his life to photographing microscopic snowflakes. Keep reading to find out more…
Which came first, the snow or the passion?
Wilson Bentley was born on February 9, 1865, in Jericho, Vermont. This baby who would grow up to become an innovative micro-photographer of snowflakes was born in the middle of winter, in the heart of snow country. It makes me wonder… did he love snow because there was so much of it or would he have loved it so passionately no matter when or where he was born? All I can say is that I’m so glad he followed his passion for snow despite the nay-saying of his Vermont neighbors because amazing things came from his dedication.
“Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt. We don’t need pictures.”
Mr. Bentley and I have a couple things in common. He was curious about the weather and loved to look through an old microscope to see the details of nature he found – flowers, raindrops, blades of grass, and most of all – snowflakes. I’m also a self-proclaimed weather junkie and love to photograph with a macro lens to capture up-close details of nature. We both like to share what we found with the world around us.
I’m not sure, though, that I would have had the dedication that Snowflake Bentley did. He persevered through many failed drawing attempts and then even more failed photography attempts until finally figuring out the best way to photograph a snowflake.
A scientist and an artist
As a young teenager, Willie used an old microscope to look at snowflakes and attempt to draw them. Snowflakes begin to melt almost immediately so this was very frustrating. He couldn’t draw fast enough to capture what he was seeing! When Willie was seventeen years old, his parents spent their entire savings – enough money for an entire herd of 10 cows! – to buy a bellows camera which Willie adapted to work with a microscope. The entire first winter that Willie had his camera, he wasn’t able to successfully capture even a single picture of a snowflake. Through trial and error he eventually figured out the best method and in his second winter with the camera, he was successful and thus began his snowflake picture collection. In 1885, at the age of 19, Wilson Bentley became the first person to photograph a single snowflake. This first photo was just the beginning. He went on to photograph over 5,000 more snowflakes, never finding an identical match to any snowflake that had come before.
Working conditions for a snowflake photographer are less than ideal – it has to be cold so that the snow doesn’t melt while you’re working. Sometimes weather conditions create only broken jumbled snowflakes but some storms are perfect. Willie’s best snowstorm came on Valentine’s Day in 1928. He was able to capture over a hundred photographs during the two-day storm.
Winter doesn’t last forever though, even in Vermont. During the summer Willie would photograph dew on spiderwebs and plants and project evening slideshows of his snowflake photos. He wrote about snow and published photos in magazines. He studied raindrops, clouds, and other weather phenomena. He spoke to groups of scientists and other scholars. The snow-loving Vermont farmer came to be known as The Snowflake Man. He never became rich though because every penny he earned was spent on making more pictures, his gift to the world.
“I can’t afford to miss a single snowstorm. I never know when I will find some wonderful prize.”
-Willie “Snowflake” Bentley
Thanks to money raised by other scientists, Willie’s dream, his book, was finally published when he was 66 years old. He wasn’t ready to quit though. About a month after holding his published book in his hands, Willie walked six miles home in a blizzard to take more pictures. He ended up with pneumonia and died two weeks later.
Watch to learn more
Here’s a great, short documentary about Willie Snowflake Bentley with a bit more information and insight into his life.
An inspiration to follow your passion
Snowflake Bentley was a dedicated scientist with the heart of an artist. His unwavering dedication to his snowflake photography obsession and his other studies about atmospheric water weather phenomena and cloud physics were years ahead of his time. I for one, am very thankful for his passion. The snowflakes he photographed are simply amazing. Next time you catch a snowflake on your glove, use your imagination to zoom in to really see the crystal.
My attempts at snowflake photography
Snowflake Bentley in the classroom
These are the books I use in my class to teach about Snowflake Bentley and about the science of snowflakes. I was so excited when I found out I could buy a copy of his original book with the snowflake photos. Teaching about Snowflake Bentley is one of my favorite winter units.
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