The Bentley Snow Crystal Collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science
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Wilson A. Bentley
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Bentley's Writings

A Sample from Bentley's Notebooks
"Marvel of the Snow Gems" (1910)


A Sample from Bentley's Notebooks

Bentley's notes and outline for an unidentified Monthly Weather Review article, transcribed from his "Rain" Notebook. An examination of Bentley's notebooks offers unique insight into his work, including his writing process, as well as his nearly mystical instances of spellbound snow ecstasy.

Rain Notebook, pg. 3a, 1-2:

Weather Review Article:

Condensed plan, in outline.

Introduction, mentioning previous article, etc., etc.

Number of photos secured, kind of data secured, etc.

How favorable the winter was, etc.

Briefly forecast and summarize results of Winter Studies.

New facts observed and confirmation of old ones.

New and interesting facts gleaned from weather map studies etc.


Describe classification of forms & photo examples of each rarity in each class.

Local storms.

Great Storms, value of studying various crystal forms evolved over so vast an area, & under so many meteorological & other conditions.

Describe various cloud strata of such, their number & prob altitude in each storm portion etc.

Distribution of forms throughout the vast areas of great storms.

Laws & causes governing the occurrences of & causes of the distribution of occurrences of various forms in each storm portion. Prob effects of high altitudes & resultant cold & presences of various gasses absent at lower altitudes.

Modification of forms, evolution of & causes of. Effects of various temperatures upon crystal forms. Give tables, cold & main storms etc.

Recurrence of certain types.

Effects of wind and other conditions.

Causes of abnormal forms, some to accident, others to design, & specify variations of both,

Causes of imperfections of form.

Breakage and subsequent growth around broken crystal, crystallization around broken branches, when 2 or more are in close proximity, resulting in stunted outgrowths.

The experience of the search for new forms, the rare delight of seeing for the first time this exquisite lineaments under a microscope, the practical certainty that never again will one be found just like this one. A form just like this one may never be isolated again. The concern, amounting to intense desire. Solicitude. To perpetuate each masterpiece the image of each of each rare gem in the photograph, before its matchless beauty is forever lost (to us) is an experience is so rare so truly delightful that once undergone is never forgotten & then, after the storm is over, & - with what eagerness the dark room is sought, do we seek the dark to develop and bring out these latent images of as a rule these wonderful crystal forms. Individual preferences may safely be followed, yet selection should be such, that will give pleasure for the longest period of time. We do not so quickly tire of complex ones as of more simple designs. & then after the storm is over, with what eager ness the dark room is sought, that we may watch the magic these exquisite images of nature's handiwork, come forth, in all their matchless beauty & complexity of design, under the influence of the magical chemical baths. Perpetuate for all time for our own delight & for the & to give pleasure to others.

Modifications the forms undergo as the result of winds of growth while falling. By granular additions.


Chapter treating about the various crystal forms.

Probable manner of origin of the nucleus & character of the water molecules forming them, method of swarming ________ together etc. Seeming impossibility of their being formed of coarse cloud icicles, without their structure indicating this, as in the case of G snow.

Probable initial movements within the clouds, immediate descent of the various more solid forms, P, L & N etc. & G.

Probable initial ascent of tubular star shaped gem crystals & subsequent descent, perhaps far from the region of their birth.


"Marvel of the Snow Gems" (1910), Technical World Magazine, 13, 24-27. By Wilson A. Bentley

The crystals of snow attracted my attention and study during my early teens because of their great beauty and diversity of form, and because so much mystery of the unknown enshrouded these exquisite crystals from cloudland. Moreover, they appealed to me not only for this, but because they came from that mysterious and then but little known cloud and mistland above, so seldom entered. How unique their place of origin and how strange it seemed, and indeed seems yet, that solid crystals in such immense quantities should form unsupported, up above, within the thin gas we call air, and come to us from on high. What worlds of mystery, truly how much of mystery enshrouded their origin and life history and manner and habits of growth. There seemed to be a delightful and gem-bestrewn realm of nature awaiting exploration and discovery and sure to richly reward the investigator. So I marveled not only at the exquisite loveliness of form and interior of these peerless gems from cloudland, but equally so at their almost universal habit of assuming the hexagonal form and dividing into six. What magic was there in the rule of six that made them conform so rigidly to its laws to divide into six and made these crystals from mistland conform so rigidly to its mandate? Could I not learn something about all this and throw some light on the many mysteries concerning their life history and general relations of these marvelous crystals? My first few years of snow study were taken up with studying and making some hundreds of drawings of them. But these were most unsatisfactory, and the popularization of dry plate photography called my attention to this method of securing exact, true, and permanent representations of them.

I procured a microscope and extension camera. The apparatus I procured and employed consisted of a microscope and camera combined, the whole being termed a photomicrographic apparatus, and differed but little from similar apparatus of this kind employed in general for securing photomicrographs of minute objects. I found, however, that it was necessary to substitute ordinary uncondensed daylight as a source of illumination, in place of the artificial light then universally used, and it was best to use transmitted light coming through a very small (1/16th inch) aperture to illuminate the object while photographing was in progress. I succeeded with this method after some few failures with various trial methods and so fascinating did the work prove to be that I have never been able to entertain the idea of relinquishing it, and so with notebook and camera have pursued this delightful study each succeeding winter for a quarter of a century. During that time we have secured some sixteen hundred photomicrographs no two alike. These served to picture almost every type of snow that occurs in nature, though of course only a fraction of the individual variations among the countless myriads of crystals composing each type.

Our studies of the snow have thrown much light upon various problems touching their origin and life history. Among the more interesting facts and theories that our studies have served to confirm or render probable, may be mentioned the following: the clouds, the liquid particles (water dust) of which they consist, play no part in true snow crystal formation and coalesce only to form amorphous snow or to coat mature crystals with granular snow material. The bulk of the snowfall, consisting of true crystals, are formed directly from the almost infinitely small and invisible water molecules in solution within the air among and between the cloud particles.

Much wonder has been excited because the snow crystals exhibit such a bewildering beauty and diversity of form. Snow crystals form within a very tenuous, gaseous solvent, the air. This allows the molecules of water and unexampled freedom of motion and adjustment while arranging themselves in crystal form, and this doubtless largely explains why they assume such marvelous beauty and symmetry of form. Snow crystals like unto all crystals of water, frost, ice, and so forth, crystallize under the hexagonal system of crystallization, and divide into six. Nothing absolutely certain is known as to why they posses these hexagonal habits of growth except as it is assumed that the number and arrangement of attractive and repellent poles possessed by the molecules of water impose this habit of formation upon them. This dividing into six would perhaps be best explained by assuming that each water molecule possesses two opposite primary poles, negative and positive, situated at the opposite magnetic pole of each molecule, and in addition three or six equidistant secondary poles arranged around what may be called the equatorial diameter of the molecule. Water being a diamagnetic substance and susceptible to polar repulsion presumably has a tendency to arrange itself in a direction between and at right angles to the main or primary negative or positive poles possessed by the molecule. This alignment of the lines of growth opposite to the lines of magnetic force would force the crystals to grow mainly outward in the direction of their several (presumably three or six) secondary or equatorial poles. This theory would perhaps best explain why the crystals grow upon a thin tabular plane or in a hollow columnar form and grow so little in the direction of their main axis, i.e., in the direction in which their negative and positive poles presumably lie. Each of the six parts or segments of a living growing crystal in process of growth grows synchronously outward, yet each part usually grows independently and by itself. Hence each of the six parts may be considered as being a single crystal by itself, and the whole six parts as an aggregate growing simultaneously outward. The crystallographic law under which they form not only gives them a general plan of growth but in addition imposes two specific growth habits upon them. The snow crystals, in addition to growing upon the universal hexagonal plan exhibit two secondary habits of growth under that plan. We may distinguish these as the outward or ray habit and the concentric or layer habit respectively. The ray habit causes growth to occur always outward, away from the nucleus. This habit tends to produce open branching forms. Crystals which grow rapidly as within relatively warm low clouds usually grow upon this plan. In the case of the concentric or layer habit, growth tends to grow around a nucleus, arrange itself in layers around layers so as to encircle the nucleus. This habit tends to produce close solid forms, prisms, columns, and solid tabular forms. Slow-growing crystals such as columnar crystals and solid tabular crystals and all such as grow within an exceedingly cold atmosphere or at great heights in cloudland, usually grow according to this habit.

Most snow producing strata are as a rule of some depth or multiple, and vary in temperature and so forth within their different parts, hence the conditions and growth habits under which the crystals grow are unstable, and the crystals form under a multitude of diverse conditions, tending to hasten or retard their rates of growth, and to momentarily modify or to change their forms and habits of growth.

This state of things may cause them to grow at one moment an altitude of solid plans, at another after, branching plans, and perhaps after composite plans as yet others, thus continually increasing their complexity as growth progresses. In some special cases as when the crystals form and grow wholly within a single air or cloud stratum, possessing uniformity of temperature, etc., throughout, the crystals, each of the six parts as segments, may grow from start to finish after but one growth habit, a stable plan without material change of form and outline. But as a rule, conditions a growth habits are unstable and they form in intermittent order during descent through cloud strata possessing a multiplicity of diverse conditions, temperatures, and so forth each of which may tend to hasten or retard their rate of growth, and to momentarily change their form and habits of growth. Hence, the crystals grow under a multiplicity of diverse conditions and not as a rule under one stable habit or plan.

In many cases the crystals will form after two specific plans and be a composite. Especially is this apt to be the case when there are two snow producing strata, one above the other, the upper one very cold, the lower one relatively warm. The upper cold stratum will tend to produce concentric habits of growth among the crystals forming therein and cause the formation of close solid forms but as these fall down and enter the lower warmer clouds, the ray habit will assert itself and cause open branching additions to form around the angles of the close forms from above and produce the most beautiful composite types. It is all very marvelous and mysterious, this momentary shifting about as growth habits change, of the plans from which outgrowths occur and the major lines of growth. Oftentimes this shifting occurs with pendulum like regularity from corner of hexagon to side causing growth first to occur at the corners of the hexagon and then at the side. But perhaps most wonderful of all is the perfectly symmetrical way in which this is accomplished so that the crystalline balance is kept intact. If a set of branches, spangles, or tiny hexagons or other adornments form and grow at certain localities upon any one of the six rays or segments, similar or identical ones will almost invariably form at the same place and moment on all of the others. It almost seems as though the seeming magic that operates to do this might be of an electric nature. Would not the presence of tiny electric charges at some points and the absence at others momentarily shifting from point to point in symmetrical order as the crystals acquire from time to time fresh charges through air friction or through the incoming water molecules cause new realignments of the electric fluid around their peripheries and stimulate growth at certain points and retard it at others? Snow crystals are remarkable among crystals for their freedom with which they bridge over and encase so much of the solvent air within themselves. Space allows but the briefest reference to a description of the varied forms assumed by the snow crystals, as will be noted by consulting the illustrations. The outgrowths from the nucleus of the same as well as different specimens assume as growth progress innumerable variations, modifications and combinations of hexagonal figures, spangles, branching coral-like forms, etc., ad infinitum. In innumerable cases we find that crystals are alike in outline at some or even many stages of growth, as for example their nuclear existence or at completion or during their transitory stage of existence, but even in the majority of such cases of similarity it is almost invariably the case that no two assume the same outline or series of outlines in each and every stage of their growth, hence the wonderful fact that hardly two are ever just alike in every detail of outline and internal structure.

The multitudinous changes of form that so many snow crystals undergo while in the process of development impart great richness and complexity to their interior and makes the study of their interior features of great interest both from an artistic and from a crystallographic viewpoint. Each new succeeding set of spangles, branches or layers that form and push outward as soon as they are encased by subsequent growth have their own peculiar sets of airtubes or shadings within the crystals to serve as boundary markers between the old and new growth to outline and preserve the location, shape, and extent of each set, yet were it not for this intermittent manner of growth and their singular faculty of including tiny quantities of the solvent air between closely lying segments and branches as these broaden and merge together as the crystals tend to become more solid, fusion between branch and branch and segment and segment might occur in such a manner and be so complete as to destroy or leave but faint traces of these numerous transitionary stages of form engraved within them. But the numerous included tiny air tubes and dark shadings which are so prominent a feature of their interiors, serve as a biographical purpose and tend to reveal in part or whole previous transitionary forms from the nucleus outward. These also serve to immeasurably enhance their beauty, complexity and interest. Perhaps the greatest marvel of the snow is that the crystals assume such a marvelous diversity of form, though forced by the crystallographic law under which they form to assume the hexagonal form and to divide into six. Six rays or segments there usually are, though more rarely three or nine, yet what an amazing variety these present among themselves in different crystals. Individual crystals of the open branching tabular variety vary one from another in shape, size, thickness, etc., of the primary rays and these vary in turn in the number, size, shape, etc., of the secondary branches that they possess. Similarly, those possessing solid tabular form vary one from another in the number, shape, arrangement of the layers or segments composing them, and of air tubes and shadings within them. Those of a quasi open formation vary in a similar manner in the number, shape, arrangement and so forth of the various spangles, tiny hexagons, etc., composing them, and in the way in which these are combined with rays and with one another and arranged around the central nucleus.

The snow crystals being in the truest sense exquisite works of art in themselves, charmingly adapt themselves to a great variety of uses in the industrial arts and in various other ways. Their uses are steadily broadening, though they and their artistic possibilities have as yet been hardly discovered or realized by artisans in general. Metal workers as well as wallpaper manufacturers are beginning to realize their value and there should be a great field of usefulness for them here. They also seem well adapted for use in designing patterns for porcelain and chinaware, glassware, etc. Silk manufacturers are beginning to see their adaptability to silk goods and patterns in dress goods. Their value in the realm of pure art has been recently demonstrated by the charming snow crystal cover design of the Dec. 1909 Everybody's Magazine. Their use as models in art craft shops and schools of art are steadily increasing. Only recently Dr. Denman Ross, lecturer in the theory of pure design at Harvard University, purchased a large number for classroom use. Professor James Ward Stimson used some of them to illustrate the beauty of nature's art in his book on art and design, "The Gate Beautiful." Perhaps their greatest influence will be as objects for nature study to illustrate the forms and habits of growth of crystals. Normal and high schools and universities and magazines both here and abroad are finding them of great value along these lines. Photographic prints on paper are well adapted for framing under glass and hanging upon school rooms or museum walls, and the lantern slides are splendidly adapted for classroom demonstration and for lecture purposes. It seems likely that these beautiful objects from on high will soon come into their own, and receive the appreciation and study that their exquisite beauty and great interest as crystallographic objects entitle them.


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