A recent article in The Vault, Slate’s history blog, on illustrations of snowflakes from the 1860s caught our eye at SHRA, especially because it referenced Wilson Bentley, a figure better known to all Vermont school children as Snowflake Bentley.[i] Bentley, a farmer from Jericho, Vermont, followed the exquisite snowflake drawings of the 1860s with the first known photographs of snowflakes, photographs taken with such precision and care that they remain some of the best there are even today.
Bentley lived in the foothills of the Green Mountains in one of those “cold spots” that always seems to get more snow than the rest of the state, and he became fascinated with the geometric patterns found in snow crystals at an early age. His first photograph of a snowflake, captured using a camera attached to a microscope, was taken 130 years ago, in January 1885. Bentley spent the rest of his life photographing more than 5,000 of these ephemeral “miracles of beauty,” and it is to him that we must attribute the first recognition that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1925 he wrote, “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”[ii]
Bentley published his findings in Popular Scientific, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and American Annual of Photography, among other renowned publications. His work was broader than most realize: He discovered that temperature determined whether a snowflake was shaped as a hexagon, star, column, or needle, a hypothesis that scientists confirmed three decades later; he spent years studying raindrops; and he was far ahead of his time when it came to cloud physics.[iii] Today, the largest collection of Bentley’s photographs is held by the Jericho Historical Society, and his original glass-plate photomicrographs are located at the Buffalo Museum of Science. His photographs were never copyrighted; just like snowflakes themselves, they remain in the public domain for all to enjoy.
~ Naomi Heindel
From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post. This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life. If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.
[i] Rebecca Onion, “A Victorian Argument That Snow Is Holy, Illustrated by a Beautiful Catalog of Flakes,” The Vault, Jan. 27, 2015