This Vermont man invented snowflake photography

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley is the reason we know how beautiful snowflakes are.

Images of snow crystals taken by Wilson Alwyn Bentley. (Jericho Historical Society)

You probably remember being awed when your science teacher showed the class some close-up pictures of snowflakes during grade school.

It turns out there’s a good chance that the pictures you saw were taken by one particular New England man named Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.

He was a Vermonter and a farmer, of course, and he was born in 1865 in the small town of Jericho, which is about 12 miles east of Burlington.

According to WBUR, Bentley is credited with creating the world’s first clear images of snow crystals.

Sue Richardson, Bentley’s great grand-niece, told the radio station he lived on the family’s dairy farm where he took pictures of more than 5,000 snow crystals over the course of 40 years.

New England

“Even today, if you see a photograph of a snow crystal, there’s a pretty good probability it’s one of his,” Richardson told WBUR. “And he’s the one that taught us that no two snow crystals — or no two snowflakes, as they use the term — are alike.”


According to WBUR, Bentley’s fascination with snowflakes started when he was gifted a microscope by his mother. Richardson told the radio station that as a teen, he wanted to put anything and everything under the microscope.

When winter came, he was able to look at a snowflake through it, and he immediately fell in love.

WBUR reported that he at first tried to sketch the snowflakes, but was gifted a $100 camera using some family inheritance for his 17th birthday. That camera would cost about $2,750 in today’s currency, so Richardson said Bentley’s mother had to do some convincing to get his father to agree to the investment.

WBUR reported that Bentley had a specific machine, which was part camera and part microscope, and a specific method for capturing snowflakes.

The radio station wrote that he set it up inside an unheated woodshed, and when it started to snow, he’d catch the snowflakes on a tray. Then, he’d use a thin broom straw to move a chosen snowflake to an observation microscope before delicately pressing it with a turkey feather while he transferred its slide to the camera.

Wilson Bentley took thousands of photographs of snowflakes with his machine. – Jericho Historical Society

Richardson told WBUR that Bentley had to do this with huge, Bernie Sanders-style mittens on and without breathing for fear that he might melt the snowflake.


Since he was the first person to do it, he came up with this method simply through trial and error, WBUR wrote, but he would later write that the day he successfully got a picture of the snowflake was the best day of his life.

WBUR wrote that his work was not immediately appreciated by locals, but in 1931, he made a book of 2,000 of his snowflake prints that was very successful.

Today, he is still recognized by meteorologists for how much data he contributed to the study of snowflakes


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