WILSON ‘SNOWFLAKE’ BENTLEY...A MAN OF THE WINTER SEASON
By Climatologist Cliff Harris
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, the Jericho, Vermont man who proved 120 years ago that "no two snowflakes are alike". He also predicted weather "by the size of the snowflakes."
In the opinion of this climatologist, Cliff Harris, the prime contributor to our combined scientific knowledge of "unique" snow crystals was undoubtedly Wilson Alwyn, a.k.a. ‘Snowflake’ Bentley.
Bentley, born on February 9, 1865, towards the end of the Civil War, lived his entire life on a small farm in tiny Jericho, Vermont, where my wife Sharon and I spent more than 8 interesting years prior to returning to our home in North Idaho in August of 2003.
During Wilson’s 50-year-plus career, which began with his 15th birthday when his parents presented him with a new microscope, he painstakingly photographed more than 5,300 distinct patterns of snow crystals concluding accurately that "no two snowflakes have ever been identical, like fingerprints," he would say.
In 1885, at age 20, Bentley successfully adapted his microscope to a bellows-type camera and soon became the first person in recorded history to photograph a single snow crystal. In fact, in his 66-year lifetime, Wilson collected more photographic negatives of snowflakes than all other observers combined.
As a young boy, Bentley made more than 300 drawings of snow crystals. By the mid-to-late 1880s, he began to document his snowflakes with his camera, often in near sub-zero weather conditions. These beautiful photos became so popular that "Snowflake" actually sold 200 of them to the famous jewelry store Tiffany’s in New York City, who used his snow crystal patterns for designing expensive broaches and pendants.
On his farm property, Bentley built a shed for taking his pictures. He collected individual snow crystals on a board painted black in an unheated room. He would lift the flake off the board with a splinter of wood and then place the crystal on a microscope slide. He would lastly photograph the snowflake through the microscope using a 50-second exposure. His photographs also proved that all snowflakes are ‘hexagonal,’ or ‘six-sides.’
Bentley’s photographs, I have one on the wall in my weather office at home, have been featured in literally hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers around the world in the past century or so. A recent award-winning children’s book "Snowflake Bentley," by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, can be found in most book stores and encourages children of all ages to learn more about him and his beloved snowflakes.
Wilson wrote in 1925, "under the microscope, I found that every snow crystal is a miracle of God’s beauty. It seems a shame that this wonder can’t be appreciated by others. Every flake is a masterpiece of design by the Creator and no single design has ever been repeated." He went on to add, "when a snowflake melts, that unique design is forever lost, without leaving any record of its beautiful existence."
Snowflake Bentley died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve in 1931, shortly after trudging through a Vermont snowstorm. He literally "died with his boots on", doing what he loved best. He was a true "role model" for the ages. He not only contributed greatly to science, but he also gave all of us a greater appreciation of the winter season.
Maybe someday, I’ll be called, especially after these past two record snowy winter seasons, ‘SNOWFLAKE HARRIS.’ Maybe not.