Arboretum Afternoons/Snowflake Bentley

This Winter, we’ll be embracing the chilly weather by learning about the amazing adaptations of Arctic animals, the (sadly diminishing) grandness of glaciers – and about those fascinating and fleeting phenomena of the season – snowflakes.  I can be conflicted about the winter cold, but never about the wonder of noticing small things!

That we know as much as we do about snowflakes/snow crystals – their structure, variation, uniqueness – we owe to a remarkable fellow who was a pioneer in meteorology and photomicrography (photographing objects under a microscope)  – Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.

Bentley, born on February 9, 1865, grew up on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. Until he was 14, he was taught by his mother at home.  She was a former schoolteacher who instilled in him a love of learning.  He read all the books she had at home, including a set of encyclopedias.  His mother also had a microscope and Wilson recounted that while other boys his age were playing with “popguns and slingshots”,  he was absorbed in studying “fragments of a stone, a feather dropped from a birds’ wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”  But it was water in all forms – rain, dew, frost, clouds, and especially snowflakes -- that most mesmerized him.

While neighboring farmers dreaded the long, harsh winter season – the opportunity to learn as much about snow as possible delighted Wilson. Working carefully but quickly in a freezing shed, he was able to use his microscope to see snowflakes and found them more beautiful, diverse, and detailed than he had imagined. He wanted to preserve their beauty for others to enjoy, so he made sketches – but the snowflakes melted before he could finish. Wilson realized his illustrations couldn’t capture the intricacies of his subjects and was determined to find another way. 

When Wilson was 17, he and his mother persuaded his father that they should buy a large and costly bellows camera, which Wilson then combined with a microscope. Through trial and error, with much patience and persistence, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Wilson succeeded in taking the first image of an ice crystal. He was just under 20 years old at the time.

He went on to create remarkable collection of beautiful, detailed images – while perfecting his photography skills, his study of snow, and his snowflake collecting technique. His work attracted the attention of academics and institutions and in May 1898, "A Study of Snow Crystals" was published. Articles in National Geographic and Popular Mechanics helped spread the news of his remarkable efforts.  By the 1920s, he had taken more than 5000 snowflake images – with about half of these featured in his 1931 book, Snow Crystals – which is still in print today. Many of his images were acquired by museums and schools.


Because of his lifelong fascination, Wilson was able to share the astonishing beauty of nature's minature and ephemeral masterpieces with the world, and he became known as “Snowflake” Bentley or “Snowflake Man.” The Burlington Free Press wrote in Bentley’s 1931 obituary, “He saw something in snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience or understanding to look.”

For more on Wilson Bentley’s life and work, visit:

-- Lisa Lukas