Snowflake Bentley

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bently_flakes.jpgIn 1880, in the small village of Jericho, Vermont a fifteen year old boy who had been home taught by his mother on the family farm was given a microscope. Wilson Bentley’s mother had been a teacher before marrying her farmer husband and the small, old microscope had been part of her classroom equipment from years before. Wilson became entranced by the microscope and spent most of his free time putting any and everything under its lenses. Being a northern Vermont farm, that soon meant the snowflakes that began to fall in November. And being a northern Vermont farm in the late 19th century, that meant that there were always rooms in the house that were as cold as it was outside. Bentley spent a good amount of time over the next two winters peering at the snowflakes that fell regularly.

He tried drawing them but found he had little talent for it. Somehow he decided to ask his mother if would be possible to use a camera to take pictures through his microscope to record what he saw. That would require a bellows camera and a microscope objective at a cost of $100. One hundred dollars was an enormous sum for a farm family in 1883, yet his father surprised them both by agreeing to buy the equipment

It took Bentley more than a year to have any success. He knew nothing about photography and had to experiment using natural light in freezing conditions, but in the late winter of 1885 he created the first photomicrographs of snow crystals ever taken.oldredmill.jpg

Amazingly, Bentley then proceeded to spend the next 13 years working alone, photographing snow crystals, recording all the meteorological data for his samples, and postulating over the reasons for the myriad shapes and sizes. During all that time he never shared his discoveries with anyone in the scientific community. He did it for the sheer wonderment and joy of the world that he had entered into.

In 1898 a professor at the University of Vermont heard of his work and helped him to write an article for Popular Scientific Monthly. Bentley went on to photograph and publish right up to his death in 1931. During all that time he continued to use his original camera to study snow flakes, rain, and dew.

He never married and lived in the family farmhouse his whole life. He took over 5,000 photomicrographs. They are a testament to one person's love of the pursuit of knowledge.

The Jericho Historical Society has a section of their museum set up in the Old Red Mill to tell Bentley's story, display some of his photographs, and to preserve the history of the town. It's worth an hour or so of your time if you are ever in the the area near Burlington.

7 Comments

So wait, you made it to the museum? I thought that you were sick? I'd like to visit the museum next time I come up.

I didn't get to the museum last week. I spent the morning curled up trying not to barf. I had written this piece a while back and planned to expand or modify based on the visit. But since I hadn't posted in a while and was off to NYC for a few days, I posted what I had on hand. Maybe we'll do a day trip next time you are up...

That was a life well spent. Those photographs are amazingly beautiful.
In my younger days I too was a connoiseur of snowflakes. Not of shape and beauty, though I did admire these qualities. Like Lucy and Charlie Brown I savored the taste of the lovely snowflakes
as they fell from the heavens. Though Lucy opined the flakes were more flavorful after December snows I personally found the colder the day the finer the quality of the ice morsels on the tongue. I'm sure Mr. Bently would be apalled.
Forgive my appetite for the finer things in this world.

how exactly did Wilson bently catch snow flakes?

how did wilson cacth the snowflakes without them melting.

He went outside during snowfalls and used a wooden board to catch them.

He worked in unheated rooms in the house or barn or outside. He left his metal tweezers and other tools outside all night to make sure they were cold enough. He even added wire handles to his wooden stuff to help avoid his body heat from being transferred to the wood.

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This page contains a single entry by published on February 16, 2004 8:43 AM.

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