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Remembering Wilson Bentley: The ‘Snowflake Man’

Were he alive today, Wilson Bentley would be likely putting an end to his travels and speaking schedule for the year and turning his attention to the skies, looking for his one true love: Snowflakes.

Wilson Bentley Snowflake1Bentley, as Vermonters may (or may not) know, was the keenest student of snowflakes the world will probably ever know.

Growing up on a farm in Jericho, Vt., Bentley became fascinated by snowflakes as a youngster. The fascination never left him as he grew older. In fact, it intensified, it’s fair to say, into an obsession.

The obsession began in 1880, when Bentley was just 15. He began examining snowflakes under a microscope. Though he had no training in science, he began a meticulous process of gathering and recording details of snowflakes. He pioneered a technology of photographing them through a microscope, and developed the theories that no two snowflakes were alike and most were hexagonal.

Over 46 years before he died at 66 in 1931, Bentley would create 5,300 photographs of snowflakes, cataloging and analyzing their characteristics. He had devised a way to capture them in perfect condition: He stretched pieces of black velvet on frames and left them around his farm. Fresh snowfall landing on his velvet capture pads provided the pristine flakes for his research.  You can see collections of his work at the Jericho Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution.

Wilson Bentley

Wilson Bentley

In the early years of his snowflake studies, Bentley was strictly an amateur. He worked at his research on the side while still running his farm and briefly dabbling in teaching music. In 1898, however, he published his first article on his research, and soon he had no more time for farming.

Though he remained living alone at his Jericho farm throughout his life, Bentley’s services were in demand elsewhere. He became a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

His photographs and writings were in high demand, both in the scientific community and in the popular press. Universities sought out his photographs for research, and he published in National Geographic, Popular Science, Nature and Scientific American. Jewelers bought his photos to design jewelry patterns.

wilson bentley snowflake2In 1931 he published his final book, Snow Crystals, written with William J. Humphreys of the U.S. Weather Bureau, which later became the National Weather Service.

Until the end, Wilson Bentley would travel to present his findings at lectures, but each year as winter drew near he would scale back his activities and return to Jericho to await the coming snows. Ultimately, what he loved helped to kill him; he died of pneumonia contracted after walking through a blizzard.

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