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Snowflake Savant

By Mariana Gosnell
10/4/2017 • American History Magazine

An obsessive Vermont naturalist armed with a camera and microscope revealed that every feathery crystal of snow is a unique world of wonder.

When subfreezing temperatures and a snowstorm descended on the Bentley family’s small Vermont farm on January 15, 1885, 19-year-old Wilson Bentley headed straight for an unheated woodshed and got to work. As 5 inches of virgin snow fell, he snared snowflakes in a black tray and tried to photograph individual snow crystals with a bellows camera attached to a microscope. All the photographs Bentley had produced in countless previous attempts that winter and the winter before were maddeningly faint. But on this day, when he experimented with a small lens opening and a time exposure of nearly a minute and a half, he finally captured a distinct image of a snow crystal. “I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it!” he later recalled.

Before Bentley, only a handful of people had ever seen the delicate, fleeting microstructure of snowflakes, and no one had replicated the visual complexity of a single snow crystal in a photograph. In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, and René Descartes, a French mathematician and philosopher, wrote about the curious symmetries of snowflakes they observed with the naked eye. Robert Hooke, an English natural philosopher, made numerous sketches of snowflakes he studied with a primitive microscope. But we can thank Bentley, a country boy with an unschooled passion for nature, for opening our eyes to a hidden world of wonder. He prized snowflakes with the kind of devotion that botanists have for rare or endangered species and revealed their breathtaking diversity in a collection of 5,381 photographs he amassed before his death in 1931.

“Could it be that through some strange freak of accident or providence,” Bentley once mused, “that the one man who loves the snowflakes most had been born at the one most favorable spot on earth for the study and photographing of them?” He lived on a small farm outside Jericho, Vt., where the average annual snowfall is about 120 inches. But ideal location was only one ingredient in Bentley’s success. When he was 15, his mother, Fanny, a former schoolteacher, gave him a small microscope. While other boys were playing with popguns and slingshots, Bentley used his microscope to get up close to petals, feathers, pebbles— and snowflakes. He saw that many snowflakes are conglomerations of crystals, and that the crystals themselves are gorgeous and “bewilderingly” diverse. He longed to share what he was seeing with others. Over three winters, in his makeshift laboratory, he tried sketching individual snow crystals. But invariably they started melting before he could finish. “When a snowflake melted that design was forever lost,” he later lamented. “Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

Eventually Bentley and his mother talked his father, Edwin, into buying a bellows camera with microscope attached, even though at $100 it cost almost as much as the farm was worth. During a snowstorm, he would hold out a black tray, waiting patiently for at least two intriguing snowflakes, wiping away others with a turkey-wing feather. Working quickly and taking care not to melt them with his breath, he would use the sharp point of a broom straw to move a crystal onto a glass slide, then put it under the microscope, where the crystal’s image could be enlarged up to 36,000 times. He pointed the camera toward the light of a window since he would be shooting through the crystal.

Meanwhile, Bentley meticulously recorded the duration of the storm and the amount of snowfall, the direction of the winds, the air temperature, even the condition of the sky: 1:00 “sun obscured,” 1:30 “darker,” 2:00 “darker still.”

He didn’t get much encouragement for his efforts. His neighbors thought him odd and he had no professional contacts. His lucky break came in 1898 when he showed some of his work to George Perkins, a professor at the University of Vermont, who helped him get an article and some of his snow crystal photos published in Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly. That same year, the Harvard Mineralogical Museum bought 400 of his photos, for display, commending his careful documentation. In subsequent articles Bentley wrote for both scientific and popular publications, his language swung from the technical to the rapturous. When discussing how temperatures at different altitudes determine a snowflake’s shape, he pointed out that each individual crystal therefore reveals where it spent its “youth in cloudland” and added, “Was ever life history written in more dainty or fairy-like hieroglyphics?”

Soon Bentley was invited to lecture on snow crystals and to make his prints and lantern slides available to high schools and colleges. But the work didn’t bring in much money, and photo supplies were costly. So he kept on farming. Though slight—5 feet, 3 inches and 120 pounds—he could do his share of pitching hay and digging potatoes. He and his older brother Charlie shared the farmhouse after their parents died, with Wilson’s side a cluttered mess. He had a piano there, covered with sheet music and movie magazines. He played for square dances and could supposedly duplicate the sounds of frogs and birds with his violin. Meanwhile, he never stopped being excited by snowstorms or taking photos during them—“I never know when I’m going to find some wonderful prize.” In the 1922 crop, the prize was a “good luck” crystal. “It not only has a horseshoe pictured as its nuclear feature,” he wrote, “but more wonderful still, it has six surrounding features, each of which resembles a horse’s hoof.”

In 1929 William J. Humphries, president of the American Meteorological Society, arranged for publication of a book featuring Bentley’s photomicrographs. It came out two years later, containing images of almost 2,500 snow crystals (plus a few of frost and dew). Bentley received his copies of Snow Crystals, the culmination of his life’s work, the day after Thanksgiving in 1931. A few weeks later he died of pneumonia.

Bentley’s passion lives on in his work. In one of his last articles, he modestly suggested that his studies had been “one of the ‘little romances of science.’” Even near the end of his life he wistfully recalled the one that got away. “Perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen was a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy! In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to the slide. It makes me cry, even now.”

 

Mariana Gosnell is the author of Ice and Zero Three Bravo.

Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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