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

Bentley and his Camera

Biography

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born February 9th, 1865, on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. His mother was a former teacher, and home schooled his brother and him. His father taught him how to farm. A farm boy's life is close to nature, which well-suited Bentley because he loved nature and the weather. He was very curious, especially about snow. For his 15th birthday, his mother gave him a microscope. Looking at snow crystals through his microscope, Bentley was amazed at their beauty, complexity, and variety. He tried to make detailed drawings of magnified snow crystals, but the snow melted before he could finish. Frustrated but determined to capture the exquisite geometrical intricacies of snow crystals, he decided to try photography.


During the late 19th Century the camera was an expensive new technology. Bentley's father considered a camera an unnecessary luxury and would not buy him one--he did not understand why Bentley wanted such an expensive "toy". Fortunately, Bentley's mother helped change his father's mind, and when Bentley was seventeen he got a camera and new microscope.

It took Bentley two years of painstaking trial and error, but on January 15, 1885, at the age of 19 years, he made the world's first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. The process he developed was unique and innovative, and when he first shared his images with others many people, especially scientists and professional photographers, "doubted Bentley's ability and his images" authenticity. However, over time Bentley was recognized for what he had achieved. His boyhood interest in the snow's microscopic beauty expanded to include a scientific curiosity of snow crystals structure and development, and he devoted himself to his photography and study of snow and other atmospheric phenomenon. Top

Collage of Bentley and Snowflakes

To the villagers of Jericho, Vermont, Bentley was considered odd, and was known to many of them as the "Snowflake Man" because of his quiet nature and unusual preoccupation with his snow photography. But Bentley was a sensitive, thoughtful man; a gifted and intuitive scientist who was also a talented musician. He played the piano, organ, clarinet, coronet, violin, and composed music for a community marching band. Though it was never confirmed that he stood barefoot in the street playing his violin as snow fell from the gray sky, he would occasionally entertain villagers by imitating the sounds of animals and birds with his violin. Frequently, however, the people of Jericho would watch as he hurried past them, camera under his arm, notebook in hand, running to capture freshly falling snow.


The fascination for snow that drove his scientific curiosity and photographic innovations led Bentley to record detailed weather observations and notes on his photographic techniques. Bentley filled nine notebooks with 47 years worth of his observation and analysis, and these records provide useful information about daily weather conditions, and valuable details of his many sessions photographing snow crystals. The breezy, telegraphic style of these journal entries is in contrast to the eloquently passionate language of the many articles he wrote that describe his discoveries and techniques.


In 1898, at the age of 33, he began to publish articles of his findings and images. He published 49 popular and 11 technical articles about snow crystals, frost, dew, and raindrops, including the entry on "snow" in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Though during his lifetime the scientific community largely ignored his innovative work, he was elected, in 1920, a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. Since his death in 1933, he has achieved a reputation as a pioneering weather scientist and photographer. He lived to see Snow Crystals, a book of his snow crystals images, published in 1931, but died of pneumonia that same year, after walking home through a blizzard.

As a boy Bentley brought to bear his great curiosity and imagination to the task of sharing with the world the beauty he saw in snowflakes. He went on to become a true pioneer in the field of atmospheric science, as well as an innovative, talented photographer with an artist's eye. Top

 

Read a sample of Bentley's notebooks and manuscripts.

See a list of articles by Bentley.

 

 
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