Wilson A. Bentley (b. 1865) first become fascinated with snow during his childhood on his parents’ farm in Jericho, Vermont. A self-educated farmer, Bentley experimented for years with ways to view individual snowflakes in order to study their crystalline structure, at last successfully adapting a microscope to a bellows camera. After much trial and error, he made the first known photomicrograph of a single snowflake in 1885. Over 5,000 more images followed.
“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,” he later said. “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.”
Bentley’s photomicrographs demonstrated that no two snowflakes are alike. His work was studied by scientists, collected by universities, and published in scientific articles and magazines, including National Geographic and Scientific American. In 1903 Bentley sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian Institution, hoping they might be of interest. These images are now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Bentley’s book Snow Crystals, with more than 2,400 snowflake images, was published in 1931, the year that he died. While his work is not on public display at the Smithsonian, you can see more of his images on the Smithsonian website. You can also click on any of the images above to enlarge them. And you can learn more about Bentley and his work here.
All photos by Wilson A. Bentley/Smithsonian Institution Archives.