Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865 – 1931) is one of the first known photographers 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.
He first became interested in snow crystals as a teenager on his family farm. 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 would capture 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 sublime.
Bentley poetically 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.