Winter is coming and snow is beginning to fall in some parts of the world. I don’t live where we get much snow but I am always delighted when I have a rare opportunity to experience it. It you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of an individual snowflake on a dark coat sleeve or glove and see the unique shapes of these delicate water crystals.
One man who was particularly interested in snowflakes was W. A. Bentley from Jericho, Vermont aka “Snowflake” Bentley. Bentley was born in 1865 and was a self-educated farmer, however, he “attracted world attention with his pioneering work in the area of photomicrography, most notably his extensive work with snow crystals” (Blanchard, 261). After years of experimenting, Bentley figured out how to adapt a microscope into a bellows camera. Because of his invention, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, he obtained the first photomicrograph ever taken of an ice crystal. He continued with this obsession and captured detailed pictures of more than 5,000 snowflakes during his entire lifetime. It is because of Bentley we know that no two snowflakes are alike.
When Bentley was sixty years old, he recalled his early days: “I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. She had been a schoolteacher before she married my father, and she instilled in me her love of knowledge and of the finer things of life. She had books, including a set of encyclopedia. I read them all. And it was my mother that made it possible for me, at fifteen, to begin the work to which I have devoted my life. She had a small microscope, which she had used in her school teaching. When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird's wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower. But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most. The farm folks, up in this North Country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall-which usually came in November-until the last one, which sometimes came as late as May.” (Blanchard).
Bentley said, "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."
During the next snowstorm you experience, take a moment to look at it through new eyes. Study those tiny, wet miracles and be amazed!
Blanchard, Duncan C. “Wilson Bentley, The Snowflake Man,” Weatherwise, 1970, 260-269.