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The Snowflake Man
Snowflake Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG Via Getty Images

The Snowflake Man

By NWS Heritage Projects Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from Forty Years of the Weather Bureau The Transition Years by Frank E. Hartwell, 1958.

Back in the summer of 1919 a little, alert, middle-aged man appeared in my office in Burlington and introduced himself as Wilson A. Bentley, the snowflake man, and there began a friendship that lasted until his death in 1931. Bentley was one of those rare persons who could talk intelligently on almost any subject for he was a voracious reader. His hobby of drawing snowflake forms from observing them through a simple microscope as a boy in his early teens grew to the taking of microphotographs and was carried to such precision of technique that he became the outstanding snowflake photographer of the world, with a world-wide demand for his negatives, prints, and lantern slides. Bentley never tried to work with his snowflake camera cexecpt in temperatures from 20o to 25o Fahrenheit, out in a shed or lean-to, with the camera pointed toward the sky through an open door, so that the illumination would pass through the snow crystal. At the time I visited his workshop in winter, he had stored a few tubfuls of fresh snow from an overnight storm. He would slice off a little of this snow with a shingle, brush off a few flakes with a feather onto a little black tray, look at them hurriedly with powerful reading glass to see if there were any worth photographing (all the while holding his breath and holding everything almost at arm's length). If any single flake on the tray looked interesting, he would pick it up on a sliver of hard wood and press it against a glass slide ready for the lens. All this was done in much less time than it takes to tell it, and when the negative was developed there was little, if any, indication of evaporation or melting from the crystal.

It was then that Bentley told me of a criticism of his work by a German professor that had appeared in a scientific journal, to the effect that Bentley's work was worthless because he retouched his negatives to make them perfect and pretty. The German who wrote the criticism had made "a great many microphotographs of snowflakes" and ponderously declared "there is nosuch thing as a perfect snowflake in nature." Bentley dismissed the criticism with the laconic remark that "the Dutchman works so slow that the corners all evaporate or melt off his snowflakes before he gets his picture made." It was Bentley's pride that he never touched a negative with a retouching pencil or "doctored" the image in any way.

His work by that time had attracted the attention of the Central Office of the Weather Bureau, and quite a large number of his photographs were incorporated in a separate supplement to the Monthly Weather Review, the Bureau's technical publication. Bentley discussed with me the preparation of a book on the subject, his idea being a small popular priced volume. He asked me to collaborate with him, as he felt a bit diffident about the preparation of the text to accompany his photographs. We went so far as to prepare an outline for the book, but that is as far as it ever went.

This dream of his life would never have been realized because of the expense involved but for a generous gift for the purpose through the National Geographic Society, which in turn was charged with the responsibility of designating some person who could help select and arrange the photographs and prepare a text that would enhance the value of such a volume. It was here that the invaluable services of Doctor W. J. Humphreys, of the Central Office staff, appeared. Doctor Humphreys finally convinced Mr. Bentley that he should bring out a more elaborate book, concentrating his energies and his best work in this manner. Doctor Humphreys wrote the text, helped Bentley with the classification and arrangement of some two thousand of his best photographs out of a collection of approximately five thousand, found a publisher --- and the book was on the presses of the McGraw-Hill Book Company when Bentley died.

My first visit to his place out on the Jericho farm was by specialinvitation during the trout season. He walked me about fifteen miles through meadows and brook beds until I lost my enthusiasm for the sport and haven't fished since. But we caught enough of legal size to cook for supper after we returned to the farmhouse, where, with an interested listener, Bentley waxed eloquent about his hobby, explaining his procedure and showing me literally hundreds of his choicest prints. I still have a few that he gave me that day.

He had a lattice below his front porch decorated with snowflake patterns, and several large ones, three or four feet in diameter, fastened up on the side of his barn. He also had a collection of quartz and other crystals of geologic interest displayed on a special bench in his front yard.

The house was a rather large as farmhouses go in the back country of Vermont, and he, a confirmed bachelor, lived alone in one wing, while the rest of the house was occupied by a nephew and his family. The room was about fifteen feet square, containing an old-fashioned wood-burning cookstove, a few plank-bottom chairs, a common drop-leaf table, of which he used one side as a desk, and a beautiful-toned piano. The room communicated by a narrowish passageway with the woodshed in the rear where he kept his micro-camera mounted throughout the year. This micro-camera was a combination of microscope and ordinary bellows view camera which he had rigged up himself in the crudest sort of manner, the focusing device being operated by spools and strings.

His workroom and the passageway had the effect of everything that had been discarded or not at the moment being used simply having been pushed aside. Papers and bulletins lay in a circle around the table where they had fallen off onto the floor when he pushed them back to make room for the current occupation.

Winter clothing and footgear so filled the corners of the passageway that one had to walk carefully to avoid treading on mackinaw or stumbling over a rubber boot. He would not allow his nephew's wife in his wing of the house; said he could never find anything if he once turned her loose in there!

He was a brilliant pianist (taught music in his younger days) and the keyboard showed an arc from treble to bass where his fingers in playing had cleared the dust from the keys, while beyond the reach of his fingers the dust was banked between the black keys and into the corners. Yet he would go about the room with perfect aplomb, as though his housekeeping were immaculate, picking choice prints from windowsills or mantel or piano top, or if the fancy struck him, sitting down to play some brilliant classic or modern song hit --- he seemed to have them all at his fingertips, notwithstanding the fact that his hands were calloused and gnarled from farm labor, for a dairy farm and sugar orchard were prime sources of income until the end.

The end came because of his enthusiasm for what he called his lifework. Returning from a lecture engagement, against strenuous insistence and advice of those who would gladly have entertained him, he went home through a severe snowstorm, in December 1931 and the exposure that night caused his death from pneumonia. He "had to go home because the storm was the type that yielded a certain sort of snow crystal that he wanted!"

Another sidelight on the character of Friend Bentley was that for a number of years he offered the hospitality of his farm to the "fresh-air children" from New York City, and summer after summer the same children would come back to him.

Bentley was of the Elect.

[NOAA Central Library Call Number QC875 U7 H38 1958]