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Wilson A. Bentley:
The Snowflake Man

Wilson A. Bentley attracted world attention with his pioneering work in the area of photo- micrography, particularly with snowflakes. On January 15, 1885, he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal. Throughout the following winters until his death in 1931, Bentley captured more than 5,000 snowflakes on film. No two were exactly alike.

Bentley was born in 1865 and raised in Jericho, Vermont, the heart of the snowbelt where the annual snowfall is about 120 inches. A home-educated farm boy, his mind was always active and he had many interests. He loved nature and studied the weather. He roamed the countryside collecting rock specimens for his collection. He sang and played the piano as well as the clarinet, cornet, and violin. At the age of 60, Bentley recalled how his lifelong passion to study snowflakes got started:

“I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. She had been a school-teacher 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 encyclopedias. 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.”

Willie spent many long cold winter days in a shed at the back of his farmhouse peering through the microscope at ice crystals he collected. At age fifteen, he started sketching the snow crystals. Then he read about a camera that could take photographs through a microscope. Even though his father thought it was a foolish endeavor, his parents saved up their money and bought one for him when Bentley was seventeen.

For over a year Bentley experimented with his new microscope and camera, which recorded images on large glass plates. It took a lot of persistence and learning by trial and error before he finally reached his goal, the first photomicrographs ever taken of an ice crystal. From then on, he looked forward to each winter ahead with as much enthusiasm as he had approached that first winter with his new camera. He was a dedicated scientist with an artist's eye.

Bentley died on December 23, 1931, at the age of 66 after becoming ill with pneumonia. His hometown newspaper wrote the following about him: “Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.”

Snow Activities

Look at some snowflakes through a magnifying glass. Plan a snowflake party for February 9, Wilson Bentley’s birthday. Make paper snowflakes.

Paper Snowflakes

Meteorologists will say, technically, these are “paper snow crystals.” Either way, they make great decorations and are really easy to create. Paper snowflakes can satisfy children’s wishes for a snowy day at any time of year, as they happily occupy themselves for hours cutting out paper snowflakes. All you need are scissors and square pieces of paper. (Origami paper is thinner, making it easier to cut through multiple layers.)

Directions: Fold a square piece of paper in half diagonally to make a triangle. Then fold the triangle in half so the pointy corners meet. Now fold the triangle in thirds. Cut across the bottom of the paper so it is straight. Make V-shaped or other angular cuts along the sides and bottom. Identical cuts on each side create a symmetrical look. Gently unfold the snowflake. Use a hole punch to make a hole at one point of a snowflake, and thread a length of ribbon or cording through the hole if you want to hang it. Hang individually from the ceiling or attach to a window, wall, or bulletin board for a winter decoration. You can also paste a paper snowflake onto a piece of folded construction paper for a nice winter card.

Coffee Filter Snowflakes

For each flake do the following: flatten a coffee filter, fold the filter in half, fold the half into thirds. Snip the sides, top and bottom of the folded filter. For shimmering flakes, brush with diluted glue and sprinkle on a bit of clear or colored glitter.


Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. (This Caldecott-Medal winner is a fact-filled history book, a rich science lesson, and an inspiring biography all in one. Perfect for homeschool families!)

Snow Crystals, by W.A. Bentley. (First published in 1931, this book contains more than 2400 beautiful photographs from W. A. Bentley's vast collection for scientific study. Introduction by meteorologist W. J. Humphreys discusses techniques of photographing snow crystals, the science of crystallography, classification and markings.)

Snowflakes in Photographs, by W.A. Bentley. (A selection of over 850 black and white illustrations of snow crystals, featuring 12 crystals on each page, with no two designs exactly alike. Although a smaller collection than the one above, it will inspire artists and designers in search of unique geometric patterns for their creative projects.)

Bentley's Snowflakes CD-ROM and Book, by W.A. Bentley. (576 royalty-free images of W.A. Bentley's snowflakes, now on CD-ROM for use by graphic artists, web designers, and in any number of computer projects.)

The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, by Duncan C. Blanchard. (A complete biography of Wilson A. Bentley that begins with some of his family history, then follows Wilson's life and work from his birth in 1865 to his death in 1931. The author is a meteorologist and physicist with a sincere apprecation of Bentley's work.)

Websites (Learn about Wilson A. Bentley, “The Snowflake Man,” who photographed thousands of snowflakes and taught us that no two snowflakes are alike.) (Article and YouTube video about “The Snowflake Man” in the Canada Free Press.) ("Snowflake Bentley: Man of Science, Man of God," by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.) (Discover how paper snowflakes plus math symmetry equals snowflake science! Explore the science of snow through high-resolution photographs, snow and ice crystal classifications, lots of snowflake family fun activities, hundreds of original snowflake patterns and snow crystal designs.) (Make-a-Flake snowflake: Browse a gallery of virtual snowflake designs or create a masterpiece of your own.) (As the cost of paper went down in the mid-19th century, Americans took up many different pastimes involving cutting or shaping paper to create paper chains, paper dolls, snowflake cut-outs, and other paper ornaments and decorations. This site shows how to make a Victorian paper snowflake.) (Free illustrated instructions for making paper snowflakes.) (Fun ideas for making all kinds of snowflakes, including colorful coffee filter snowflakes.) (Two different ways to make paper snowflakes.)

Related Pages

Let it Snow (Learn all about snow; includes Eskimo words for snow and a brief glossary.)

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