In 1885 Wilson Bentley Took the First Ever Photographs of Snowflakes

For his 15th birthday, Wilson Alwyn Bentley (February 9, 1865 – December 23, 1931) was given a microscope by his mother.

“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.”

It took Bentley two years of painstaking trial and error, but on January 15, 1885, at the age of 19, he made the world’s first photomicrograph of a snow crystal by adapting a microscope to a bellows camera. He would go on to capture more than 5000 snowflakes during his lifetime, not finding any two alike.

Kenneth G. Libbrecht notes that the techniques used by Bentley to photograph snowflakes are essentially the same as 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.

The process he developed was unique and innovative, and when he first shared his images with others, many people, especially scientists and professional photographers, “doubted Bentley’s ability and his images'” authenticity. However, over time Bentley was recognized for what he had achieved. His boyhood interest in the snow’s microscopic beauty expanded to include a scientific curiosity of snow crystals’ structure and development, and he devoted himself to his photography and study of snow and other atmospheric phenomenon.

The fascination for snow that drove his scientific curiosity and photographic innovations led Bentley to record detailed weather observations and notes on his photographic techniques. Bentley filled nine notebooks with 47 years’ worth of his observations and analysis, and these records provide useful information about daily weather conditions, and valuable details of his many sessions photographing snow crystals.

He published 49 popular and 11 technical articles about snow crystals, frost, dew, and raindrops, including the entry on “snow” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Although during his lifetime the scientific community largely ignored his innovative work, he was elected, in 1920, a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

Since his death in 1933, he has achieved a reputation as a pioneering weather scientist and photographer. He lived to see Snow Crystals, a book of his snow crystals images, published in 1931, but died of pneumonia that same year, after walking home through a blizzard. Because of his wonderful work with snow crystals, Wilson became affectionately known as “Snowflake” Bentley.

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