Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born to Thomas and Fanny Colton Bentley in Jericho, Vermont on February 9, 1865. He would seldom venture far from the rustic seclusion of his family's Jericho farmstead, situated on the eastern edge of Bolton Mountain. Because of the farm's remote location and brutal winters, regular attendance in the town's one-room schoolhouse was nearly impossible. Mr. Bentley later recounted that he never attended public school until age 14, but had nevertheless received an impressive education from his mother, a former schoolteacher with a vast collection of books and a set of encyclopedias. When he received the gift of a microscope, he began taking a closer look at the world around him. In 1925, he recalled, "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."
After making more than 300 snowflake sketches, he learned he could actually capture their images by using a bellows camera attached to a microscope, which he received for his 17th birthday. He devoted himself to creating his own unique system of photographing snow crystals, and on January 15, 1885, Wilson Bentley successfully took the first known snowflake photomicrographs, which he described as "the greatest moment of my life." But less than satisfied with his initial results, he strove to improve his technical precision. Working in nearly subzero temperatures, he had to develop a speedy process by which the crystals would retain their shape. He manipulated natural sky light and employed a large f-stop to capture sharp details of individual crystals. He draped a cool tray in velvet where he carefully placed the crystals, which were then transferred by a broom splint onto a pre-treated cool slide and then placed under his microscope. With a specially constructed pulley system, Mr. Bentley adjusted his back lighting before exposing his sensitized plate. He developed his own negatives and enhanced the detail of the snowflake crystals through a dark emulsion background, a tedious process that took several hours.
Despite his interests in photography, geology, and meteorology (he also spent several years studying and recording the sizes of raindrops), Mr. Bentley was a farmer by trade in the tradition of his ancestors. After compiling more than 400 photomicrographs, he showed them to University of Vermont Professor George Perkins in 1898, and his first article was published in Appleton's Popular Scientific Monthly shortly thereafter. Subsequent articles were featured in the U.S. Weather Service's Monthly Weather Review, and his photographs were used in articles on snowflakes presented in the Encyclopedia Britannica and Webster's Dictionary. In 1903, Mr. Bentley donated 500 snowflake photographs to the Smithsonian Institution to ensure their preservation. By 1920, he was universally known as "The Snowflake Man' and 'Snowflake Bentley', and his work was being featured in engravings, jewelry, and textiles. Four years' later, he received the American Meteorological Society's first research grant, and later worked with U.S. Weather Bureau chief physicist Dr. William J. Humphreys to organize his voluminous collection of photomicrographs, which now exceeded 4,000.
Mr. Bentley, who never married, never profited from his photographs or his important scientific contributions, acknowledged, "From a practical standpoint I suppose I would be considered a failure." Wilson A. Bentley died of pneumonia on December 23, 1931 at the age of 66. His hometown proudly exhibits many of his 5,381 snowflake views at the Jericho Historical Society.
2008 Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science by John D. Barrow (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.), p. 200.
2001 Exploring the World of Chemistry: From Ancient Metals to High-Speed
Computers by John Hudson Tiner (Green Forest, AR: Master Books), pp. 80-82.
1962 Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley and W. J. Humphreys (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.), p. 44.
2011 The Snowflake Man of Vermont (URL: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/02/14/the-snowflake-man-of-vermont).
1970 Weatherwise, Vol. XXIII (Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC), pp. 260-269.
2015 Wilson A. Bentley: The Snowflake Man (URL: http://snowflakebentley.com/bio.htm#t).
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