The Snowflake Man

American Icons, Hometown Heroes, People
on January 17, 2012
Some of the snowflakes photographed by Wilson Bentley.

“No two snowflakes are alike.” Most of us have heard the phrase, but did you know that an inquisitive Jericho, Vt., farmer in the 19th century discovered the uniqueness of snowflakes? Wayne Howe, archivist for the Jericho Historical Society, shares his knowledge and admiration of Wilson A. Bentley, also known as the Snowflake Man, with American Profile.

American Profile: Who was Wilson Bentley and what was his claim to fame?
Wayne Howe: Born in 1865, Bentley was a farmer, self-educated scientist and pioneering photographer who documented the beauty and structure of snowflakes and studied the weather conditions that produce them. His life’s work culminated in creation of more than 5,000 photomicrographs and publication of a book featuring his images of snowflakes.

AP: When did Bentley become interested in snowflakes?
Snowflakes fascinated Bentley. At age 14, he began spending hours in a woodshed attached to his family’s farmhouse examining them with a microscope, hurriedly drawing pictures of their geometric structure with a pencil before they melted.

AP: Why was Bentley interested in snow crystals?
Bentley regarded snowflakes as manifestations of the power and majesty of nature. He understood that snowflakes contain a record of the atmospheric forces though which their beautiful and complex designs are created and that, when snowflakes melt, the one-of-a-kind masterpieces are lost forever.

AP: How did Bentley discover and document the uniqueness of snowflakes?
Because Bentley grew up in the Green Mountains, where long winter seasons are common, he found an abundance of snowflakes to study and photograph. In the mid-1880s, he affixed a microscope to a large bellows camera and captured his first images of snowflakes, eventually illuminating the translucent crystals and darkening the background to illustrate their distinct intricate detail.

AP: What were the difficulties of photographing snowflakes and how did Bentley overcome them?
Bentley devoted a great deal of time experimenting and creating conditions in which he could photograph snowflakes. Capturing the frozen crystals and transporting them to glass negatives, determining focal points, ambient temperatures and exposure—these challenges he met with the limited technology of the early 1900s. Producing clear negatives and prints involved darkroom work in wintry weather, and Bentley used a small stream near his home to wash prints. Materials were costly, and until educational and research institutions began purchasing his snowflake prints for study, his painstaking work produced little financial return.

AP: How was his work received and heralded?
During Bentley’s early years, family members and towns-people were tolerant of his interest in snowflakes, but didn’t consider it practical. In 1898, Appletons’ Popular Scientific Monthly published Bentley’s first article about snow crystals. Other scientific articles followed, and speaking tours in cities from Boston to Baltimore lent credibility to his pursuit. Bentley’s book, Snow Crystals, published shortly before his death, must have brought tremendous satisfaction to him, and eventually earned him a degree of fame. Ironically, he died of pneumonia in 1931 a few days after a long trudge home through a snowstorm.

AP: How does Bentley’s legacy endure in Jericho, Vt.?
A museum exhibit at the Old Red Mill in Jericho features Bentley’s camera, microscope and some of his original snowflake photographs. Bentley’s photos also endure through Vermont Snowflakes, a line of collectibles and gifts—jewelry, Christmas ornaments, greeting cards, posters and prints—that feature reproductions of his images and are sold to help fund the museum exhibit. For an obscure farm kid, Wilson Bentley came a long way, and his passion and perseverance have become part of Jericho’s history.