Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Wilson A. Bentley - Pioneer in Snowflake Photography

By Mary Dodge Allen 

The old saying, “No two snowflakes are alike” – was first proven without a doubt in 1885, when a young Vermont farmer figured out how to photograph these delicate frozen crystals.

Early Wilson Bentley snowflake photo (Public Domain)

Wilson A. Bentley (Snowflakebentley.com)

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born in Jericho, Vermont on February 9, 1865. His family owned a farm in the “Snowbelt,” an area in Vermont where the average annual snowfall approached 120 inches. He and his brother worked on the farm and were homeschooled by his mother, who was a former teacher. During his childhood, Wilson developed an avid interest in studying the structure of the natural world around him - spider webs... butterflies... leaves... raindrops. He was also interested in weather patterns, and he kept a detailed record of weather conditions every day of the year.

When Wilson turned 15, his mother gave him an old microscope. It was snowing that day, and he used this microscope to get his first close-up view of a six-sided snowflake. Seeing its intricate design sparked his lifelong fascination with capturing and studying the structure of snow crystals.

He first tried to make detailed drawings of snowflakes, but they always melted too quickly. So Wilson decided to try photographing them. When he asked his parents for a better microscope and a camera, his father voiced the opinion that “fussing with snowflakes” was a waste of time. But he eventually gave in, and he gave both items to Wilson on his 17th birthday.

Wilson built an elaborate wooden frame to hold his new camera equipment and microscope – and he began working outside in the cold or in an unheated back room at his family’s home. In that era, photographers used glass plates to take photographs, and photos required lengthy exposure times - between one to two minutes... a long time for a fragile snowflake to remain intact.

Wilson Bentley in later years, photographing snowflakes (Wikipedia)

Over the next three winters, Wilson spent his precious free time away from farming chores, trying to photograph snowflakes under his microscope. Wearing winter clothing and thick mittens, he stood outside during snowstorms catching snowflakes on a black wooden tray. Then he used a straw he plucked from a broom to carefully push each snowflake onto the microscope slide. He was careful not to breathe on each flake as he quickly focused the camera and then photographed it.

Wilson developed these glass photographic plates in a darkroom he created under the stairway. He tried photographing the frozen flakes over and over again, but his efforts failed to produce clear images. Wilson never gave up, despite the cold and the difficult working conditions.

On January 15, 1885 - three weeks before his 20th birthday - Wilson finally captured the first clear photographic image of a snowflake. 

With this accomplishment, Wilson Bentley - a young Vermont farmer - became a pioneer in “photomicrography” – taking photos of tiny objects through a microscope.

Early Wilson Bentley snowflake photo (Public Domain)

After that first success, Wilson went on to photograph more than 5,000 snow crystals over the next 46 years. He often described snowflakes as “tiny miracles of beauty” and “ice flowers."

Early Wilson Bentley snowflake photos (Public Domain)

Wilson Bentley snowflake photos (Public Domain)

Wilson also photographed frost, dew and other weather phenomena. In 1904, Wilson donated 500 of his snowflake photographs to the Smithsonian Institution. And in 1920, he was elected as one of the first members of the American Meteorological Society. Wilson wrote nearly 60 articles during his lifetime, published in a variety of scientific and popular magazines, such as National Geographic.

Before his death in 1931, Wilson published a book called "Snow Crystals," in partnership with William J. Humphreys, a physicist with the U. S. Weather Bureau. This book contains over 2,300 of Wilson’s photographs, proving that every snowflake is unique.

"Snow Crystals" is available at online retailers like Amazon.

Wilson lived in his family’s farmhouse in Jericho, Vermont all his life. He died of pneumonia on December 23, 1931, at the age of 66.

Several books have been written about Wilson Bentley, including a Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book called “Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. There is also an interesting museum in Jericho, Vermont celebrating Wilson Bentley’s accomplishments.

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley Museum, Jericho, Vermont (Wikipedia)

Snowflakes are falling today in many places. (But not in Florida, where I live.) And during the holidays we will see plenty of snowflake Christmas ornaments, snowflake light strings and snowflake gift wrap.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, for his curiosity about the natural world. Through his hard work and persistence, he produced thousands of beautiful photos of these delicate and unique snow crystals.

As I look at Wilson Bentley's snowflake photos, I am amazed at God's creative handiwork - all the intricate shapes and designs. How about you?

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at Amazon.com:

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. I love this post, Mary! It's good to know the background of snowflakes photographs. It's very interesting!

  2. Thank you for posting this. If I knew Bentley was from Vermont, I had forgotten! It's my home state. I LOVE his work.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Karen and Connie. I found Wilson Bentley to be a fascinating person. I admire his appreciation of nature and his determination to keep going after so many setbacks. His snowflake photos are awesome, especially when you consider the old-fashioned photography equipment he used.