For most farming families in 19th-century rural Vermont, winter snowstorms were dreaded and endured. But for Wilson Bentley, snow was a source of intense fascination that led him, at the age of 19, to produce the world’s first photomicrographs of snow crystals, which he described as “tiny miracles of beauty”.
A stunning album of 355 of the original prints by the man who came to be known as Snowflake Bentley was bought by London’s Natural History Museum in 1899, and the collection has now been digitised and made available to view online.
“They are so incredibly beautiful,” said Andrea Hart, a library special collections manager at the museum. “When you look a bit closer and see these natural formations, you can understand why his obsession was formed.”
Bentley was born into a farming family in a remote part of Vermont in the north-eastern US. His scientific interest in snow took off at the age of 15 when his mother, a teacher, gave him a microscope. He initially tried to draw the patterns of snow crystals but they were too complex to record before they melted.
His father later gave him a bellows camera, which he was able to attach to the microscope, and after much experimentation he photographed his first snowflake on 15 January 1885.
“For the farming community, the winter months would have been hard,” Hart said. “But Bentley would get upset if he missed a snowstorm and the opportunity to get more snow crystals for his collection.”
Bentley set up his kit in the woodshed on the farm and whenever a snowstorm arrived he would capture snowflakes on a board painted black. “He would examine the snowflakes with a magnifying glass and sweep away the ones he didn’t want with a turkey feather,” Hart said.
The selected crystals would be transferred on to a glass slide using a splinter of wood from a broom, with Bentley taking care not to breathe on them.
His notebooks reveal a deep scientific obsession, intent on uncovering the secrets of snow through methodical persistence. He meticulously noted the temperature, wind direction and other meteorological details of snowstorms that might reveal any environmental influences on the nature of snow crystals. “He recorded everything,” Hart said.
Bentley was also captivated by the beauty of the images, and his magazine articles reveal his poetic turn of phrase. “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost,” he wrote in one 1925 report.
Hart said: “People became fascinated with it and would want the pictures for needlework patterns.” The images may have also prompted the tradition of cutting paper snowflakes at Christmas.
Bentley remained obsessed with snow, ice and other natural water formations throughout his life. Over 47 successive winters, using the same camera, he took 5,381 photos of snow crystals. He was the first American to record raindrop sizes, and was one of the first cloud physicists. He died from pneumonia on 23 December 1931, at the age of 66, after walking home through a snowstorm.