Bentley at work
Wilson Alwyn Bentley
February 9, 1865
Jericho, Vermont, United States
|Died||December 23, 1931 (aged 66)|
Jericho, Vermont, United States
|Known for||Snow crystals' photography|
Wilson Alwyn Bentley (February 9, 1865 – December 23, 1931) was the first known photographer of snowflakes. He perfected a process of catching flakes on black velvet in such a way that their images could be captured before they either melted or sublimated.
Kenneth G. Libbrecht notes that the techniques used by Bentley to photograph snowflakes are essentially the same as those used today, and that while the quality of his photographs reflects the technical limitations of the equipment of the era, "he did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years". The broadest collection of Bentley's photographs is held by the Jericho Historical Society in his home town, Jericho, Vermont.
Bentley donated his collection of original glass-plate photomicrographs of snow crystals to the Buffalo Museum of Science. A portion of this collection has been digitized and organized into a digital library.
Bentley was born on February 9, 1865, in Jericho, Vermont. He first became interested in snow crystals as a teenager on his family farm. “Always, right from the beginning it was the snowflakes that fascinated me most,” he said. “The farm folks up in this country dread the winter, but I was supremely happy.” He tried to draw what he saw through an old microscope given to him by his mother when he was fifteen. The snowflakes were too complex to record before they melted, so he attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope and, after much experimentation, photographed his first snowflake on January 15, 1885. He captured more than 5,000 images of crystals in his lifetime. Each crystal was caught on a blackboard and transferred rapidly to a microscope slide. Even at subzero temperatures, snowflakes are ephemeral because they sublimate.
Bentley described snowflakes as "tiny miracles of beauty" and snow crystals as "ice flowers." Despite these poetic descriptions, Bentley brought an empirical method to his work. In collaboration with George Henry Perkins, professor of natural history at the University of Vermont, Bentley published an article in which he argued that no two snow crystals were alike. This concept caught the public imagination and he published other articles in magazines, including National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and Scientific American. His photographs have been requested by academic institutions worldwide.
In 1931 Bentley worked with William J. Humphreys of the U.S. Weather Bureau to publish Snow Crystals, a monograph illustrated with 2,500 photographs. His other publications include the entry on "snow" in the fourteenth edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Bentley also photographed all forms of ice and natural water formations including clouds and fog. He was the first American to record raindrop sizes, and was one of the first cloud physicists.
He died of pneumonia at his farm on December 23, 1931. Bentley was memorialized in the naming of a science center in his memory at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. His book Snow Crystals was published by McGraw-Hill shortly before his death, and is still in print today. Bentley's lifelong home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wilson Bentley.|