The Snowflake Man
DUNCAN C. BLANCHARD, (1970). Weatherwise, 23(6), 260-269.
ON the ninth day of February 1865, Lee's army was evacuating Richmond
while Grant's army was moving southward to block the retreat. And on
that same day, in the small village of Jericho in northern Vermont,
Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born. By the time of his death, 66 years later,
he was known to thousands around the world as the Snowflake Man. His
researches into the mysteries of rain and snow were discussed in over
100 newspaper and magazine articles, in 10 technical articles in the
Monthly Weather Review, and in his book 'Snow Crystals." His
painstaking work, carried out entirely by himself on his small Jericho
farm, was so thorough and gave such new insights into the formation
of precipitation that he deserves the title of America's First Cloud
The Bentley homestead was in a valley on the east end of Jericho snuggled
up at the base of Bolton Mountain. The country winters were long and
hard, and in those days attendance at the one-room schoolhouse was very
infrequent. Perhaps it was because of this that Bentley obtained his
lifelong passion to study and understand water in all of its forms-dew,
frost, clouds, rain, and especially snow in the form of ice crystals.
At the age of 60 he recalled those early days:
I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother
taught me at home. She had been a school-teacher before she married
my father, and she instilled in me her love of knowledge and of the
finer things of life. She had books, including a set of encyclopedia.
I read them all.
And it was my mother that made it possible for me, at fifteen, to
begin the work to which I have devoted my life. She had a small microscope
which she had used in her school teaching. When the other boys of
my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in
studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments
of stone, a feather dropped from a bird's wing, a delicately veined
petal from some flower.
But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated
me most. The farm folks, up in this north country, dread the winter;
but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall-which
usually came in November-until the last one, which sometimes came
as late as May.
During the next two years young Bentley spent many a winter's day in
a cold room at the rear of the farmhouse, peering through the microscope
at ice crystals collected from the passing storms. He was fascinated
by the beauty and intricacy of the crystals, and attempted to capture
this by making drawings of them. He made hundreds of sketches but was
painfully aware that what he drew was a poor substitute for what he
saw. One day he chanced to read, probably in his mother's encyclopedia,
about cameras that could take photographs through a microscope. Bentley
and his mother somehow persuaded his father that they must buy a bellows
camera and a microscope objective. His father, however, to the end of
his days thought the whole thing a lot of nonsense, and that the proper
thing for a farmer to do was farming.
For over a year Bentley experimented with the microscope, the camera,
and the dry plates of that day that were used to record the photographic
image. He knew nothing about photography and failure followed upon failure.
But through persistence and learning by trial and error he slowly approached
his goal. He learned how to work rapidly before the ice crystal changed
shape, how to use transmitted light by pointing the camera to the sky,
and how to get sharpness of detail on the crystal by using a large f-stop.
And then, during a snowstorm on 15 January 1885, he obtained the first
photomicrographs ever taken of an ice crystal:
The day that I developed the first negative made by this method,
and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that
apparatus and worshipping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.
(A snowflake is usually composed of many ice crystals that collide
and stick together as they fall. But almost always individual ice crystals
can he found in any snowfall. Sometimes, when it is snowing lightly,
the air contains a multitude of twinkling ice crystals which drift slowly
earthward to produce a blanket of snow.)
For 13 years Bentley worked quietly and obtained over 400 photomicrographs
of ice crystals. He kept detailed meteorological records, and pondered
over the meaning of the shapes and sizes of the crystals and why they
often varied from one storm to the next. The outside world had yet to
hear from him. He was shy and soft-spoken, and felt that his meager
education prevented him from discovering anything which had not been
found by research workers in the universities. Interestingly enough
it was a university professor, George Perkins of the University of Vermont,
who heard of Bentley's work and convinced him that he did indeed have
something worthwhile to tell the outside world. His first article was
published in 1898 in Appleton's Popular Scientific Monthly.
In that article we see the style that was to characterize all of his
writing; Bentley observed nature with both the eye of the poet and the
eye of the scientist. Listen to what he has to say concerning the structure
of an ice crystal:
A careful study of this internal structure not only reveals new and
far greater elegance of form than the simple outlines exhibit, but
by means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much
may be learned of the history of each crystal, and the changes through
which it has passed in its journey through cloudland. Was ever life
history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!
This publication opened the floodgates of Bentley's creativity and
over the next ten years he observed, photographed, and experimented
with ice crystals, raindrops, and dew. He wrote many popular and technical
articles, most of them on his studies of ice crystals. His main ideas
were set forth in detail in a number of scientific papers in the Monthly
Weather Review. A 1902 paper, one of the most extraordinary and
detailed of his writings, exploded with ideas and hypotheses. The previous
winter had been a frenzy of activity for Bentley and he obtained over
200 photomicrographs! His analysis of his data convinced him, among
other things, that different segments of a storm (east, north, etc.)
produced their own predominant type of ice crystal, that the form of
the crystal (stellar, hexagonal plates, etc.) was a function of the
air temperature, that the circulation within the storm could be deduced
from the crystal structure, and that the change in form often noted
in a single crystal reflected the changes in the temperature of the
air through which the crystal fell on its journey to the ground. In
this latter suggestion, which Bentley discussed in detail, he was years
ahead of the meteorological thinking of his time. Thirty years were
to pass before Nakaya in Japan was to consider it again.
During the summer months Bentley's curiosity was directed to the problem
of the origin of rain. In his day hundreds of routine measurements were
being made across the country of the amount of rain that fell per day
or per Weak, but no one thought to ask the important question concerning
the sizes of the raindrops. No one, that is, except Wilson Bentley.
He reasoned, quite correctly, that if you wish to find out how rain
is formed there was no better place to start than by measuring the sizes
of the raindrops. In the year 1898 he began his studies on rain, for
he had "the desire to add, if possible, a little to our knowledge regarding
rainfall phenomena. . . ." And add he did. For seven years, from 1898
through 1904, he made 344 measurements of the sizes of raindrops from
seventy different storms. In 1904 he published, again in the Monthly
Weather Review, an incredible paper which on the basis of ingenuity
and number of new ideas is perhaps unmatched in the world's scientific
writings on raindrops and raindrop phenomena.
What did Bentley discover about rain? What didn't he! He found that
the largest raindrops are about one-quarter of an inch in diameter (about
6 mm). He suggested that in some cases the size was determined by the
size of snowflakes high within the cloud-the flakes had melted before
they got to the ground. Bentley went on to tell how he had found different
sizes of raindrops in different types of storms. He believed that there
was a connection betWean lightning and raindrop size. And from an examination
of his hundreds of raindrop samples he deduced that rain could have
its origin either from melting snow or from a process that involved
no ice or snow at all. But sometimes, he concluded, the sizes of the
raindrops indicate that both processes may have operated at the same
time. We know today that most of what Bentley suggested is indeed true,
although some of his ideas are still being debated. Most astonishing
of all is that he recognized a dual origin of rain, an idea that has
been firmly established only in the past 20 or 30 years.
Are you curious about how Bentley measured the sizes of raindrops?
The first measurements ever made of drop size were done in England only
three years before Bentley began his work. Did Bentley know about it?
Apparently not, for he never mentioned it nor did he copy the technique
of measuring the size of the splash when raindrops hit a piece of slate
or dyed paper. He developed an ingenious method of measuring raindrop
size that utilized materials found in his own farmhouse. He took some
flour from the kitchen, sifted it into a pan until he had a layer about
an inch deep. He exposed the pan of flour to the falling rain for several
seconds. Each raindrop soaked up some flour and formed a tiny dough
pellet. When the pellets were dry he measured them and so found the
size of the original raindrop. By dropping drops of known size from
the end of broom splints into the flour he found that the diameter of
the dough pellet was about equal to that of the drop. This simple yet
effective technique is still being used today.
These years of excitement and discovery occurred shortly after Bentley's
father had died. He had the problem of taking care of his mother, who
by this time was an invalid, and of running the farm. He shared the
operation of the farm with his brother who, with his wife and eight
children, lived in one half of the old farmhouse. The farm did well
and they built it up from a ten to a twenty-cow dairy farm. And Bentley
did his share of the work. Though small in size, probably not more than
120 pounds in weight and little over 5 feet in height, he was agile,
muscular, and extremely well coordinated. He could dig a row of potatoes
and pitch hay as fast as any other farmer in the valley. Although introverted
and sensitive, his sense of humor and gentle nature made him liked by
all. Nevertheless, many of the people in the village, like his father
and brother, thought him just a bit odd and he was the butt of many
a village joke.
One long time Jericho resident told this writer that one night he went
to a kitchen tunk (square dance) at a local farmhouse. Bentley was there,
too. Shortly before the dance was over a number of the boys sneaked
outside to where Bentley's horse and buggy were waiting, and reversed
the large rear wheels with the smaller front wheels. Then they hid and
waited to see Bentley's reaction when he came out. But there was no
reaction! "He went home like that and drove the buggy several days before
he noticed it. I don't know what you'd call that." One might call it
absentmindedness or one just might call it an example of Willie Bentley's
puckish humor. Maybe he knew that the wheels had been reversed from
the start and simply decided to play along with the game.
Bentley never married though it appears he came close to it once or
twice. After the death of his mother he lived alone in his side of the
house. His bachelor's quarters were a sort of organized confusion. A
kitchen stove, a huge wood box, a couple tables, a piano covered with
piles of sheet music, movie magazines, books, manuscripts, odds and
ends of experiments, photographic equipment, correspondence, and photographs
of ice crystals all blurred together in one large room. But somehow,
by methods known only to him, Bentley was able to find things when he
He was polite and never aggressive in his speech, but his excitement
showed when he began talking about nature. He had delicate, rounded
facial features and was described as being handsome in his youth. A
well-groomed shock of dark hair receded with the years until at age
60 his hairline ran vertically over his head from ear to ear. As if
to counteract this, he grew a large, bushy mustache. He had no real
use for clothes, and his only dress-up suit served his purposes for
many a year. It was shiny and green with age, and desperately in need
of pressing. In the winter he kept warm in a large, dark overcoat and
a soft felt hat that was clamped tightly to his head with a long scarf
that came down over his ears and was tied beneath his chin.
He had musical talents and had been taught to play the piano, probably
by his mother. He also could play the clarinet, cornet, and violin.
But the piano was his favorite. He would entertain himself and the neighborhood
children by playing and singing the popular songs of the day. With his
clarinet he played in a small brass band that he had organized. And
with his violin and his humor he entertained the villagers by imitating
birdcalls, frogs, barnyard animals, and certain people in the village!
Willie Bentley seldom complained about anything, and he seldom got
angry. He loved people, and he loved the world of nature, that grand,
mysterious world that produced the ice crystals, the rain, the fog,
and the dew. He had a very special view of this world and was often
saddened because he could not communicate what he saw to others. In
this was both the triumph and the tragedy of the life of Wilson Bentley.
At this point in his life, about 1910, he was 45 years old, and though
he would live another 21 years the majority of his creative contributions
had been made. Although they would be little recognized during his lifetime,
they were permanently recorded in the pages of the Monthly Weather
Review. They could not be erased or lost. That was his triumph.
His tragedy was the wall of silence that greeted his work during these
years. When asked toward the end of his life what his neighbors thought
of him, Bentley replied,
Oh, I guess they've always believed I was crazy, or a fool,
or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood
what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand.
So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern
slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful
on the screen. But when the night came for my lecture just six
people were there to hear me. It was free, mind you! And it was a fine,
pleasant evening, too. But they weren't interested.
Could we really expect them to be interested? How many people, even
today when science is a prime mover in our society, are really interested
in science? Very few. They may respect it but do not understand it,
and thus have little interest in it. In 1910 the villagers of Jericho
did not understand what Bentley was doing, and quite naturally they
showed little interest in his work. They were practical Vermont farmers
who understood that they had to plant so many acres of corn or potatoes,
and that a herd of cows had to be milked twice a day. They well understood
this and thus they were interested in it. They found it difficult to
understand why one of their kind would waste his time looking at snow,
raindrops, or dew. This would never bring in more money or make the
crops grow faster. The price that Bentley had to pay in loneliness is
the price that all must pay whose inner vision allows them to see what
others can never see.
We can understand the reaction of Bentley's friends and neighbors to
his work, but it is not so easy to understand the reaction of the world
of science. This was silence, utter and complete. During the ten years
that Bentley's creative efforts were at their maximum not one article
by others about his work appeared in the Monthly Weather Review.
None of the many brilliant ideas suggested by Bentley in his articles
was ever followed up by other meteorologists. His work wasn't even mentioned!
Even criticism of his efforts would have been better than no comment
at all. One can only conjecture as to the reasons for this silence from
the world of meteorology. Was it because of an intellectual arrogance
that blinded the PhD's of the world of science from realizing that a
"simple farmer" could also discover the truths of nature? Or was it
because Bentley revealed his emotions in his writings, a heresy in the
objective world of science writing. No doubt both contain an element
of truth, but probably the main reason was that Bentley and his ideas
were far ahead of his time. No scientists in America in the first 10
years of this century understood anything about the sizes of raindrops,
or how ice crystals formed in storms, or whether lightning had anything
to do with it. Bentley travelled alone into a new research frontier.
Although Bentley's inner drive to know and understand was exceedingly
strong, and he was capable of spending many long and lonely years in
this pursuit, he needed someone in the world of science with whom he
could share the excitement of crossing the frontiers of knowledge. The
creative person cannot work forever in a vacuum; he must communicate
and interact with his peers. Bentley did not have this interaction,
and this may have been the reason why he did little creative work after
But he never stopped thinking. He was just as excited as ever about
the world around him. But he began to write more and more for the general
public. The poet and the artist in Bentley took over. He had to tell
of the beauty and the elegance he saw in the world of the ice crystals,
the frost and the dew. He wrote many articles for such magazines as
Country Life, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics,
and The New York Times Magazine. He began to lecture more and
more, not only to local groups in surrounding communities but to scientific
organizations like the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Franklin Institute
in Philadelphia. He prepared boxes of lantern slides of dew, frost,
ice crystals, and clouds. He sold these at little or no profit to himself,
and in the 1920's dozens of colleges and universities in America had
the Bentley slides to show to students in the sciences. No doubt these
slides still exist, buried in the back of instrument rooms beneath years
of accumulated dust.
By 1920 Bentley was known to thousands, not by name but as the Snowflake
Man. The best of his photomicrographs were in demand by jewelers, engravers,
and by the textile industry. He kept busy supplying the outside world
with his latest pictures while continuing his work in his own world,
the world of his farm and the surrounding valley. His mind was always
active and his interests seemed to know no bounds. He studied the aurora
and kept detailed records of its appearance in the northern sky. He
made weather observations three times a day, recording the type and
amount of low, middle, and high clouds, temperature, and precipitation.
He was an amateur geologist, and roamed the countryside collecting rock
specimens for his collection. He wanted others to see the beauty of
nature and contributed to the Fresh Air Fund to help bring city children
to the countryside. His admiration for the delicate beauty of the ice
crystal extended itself to the delicate beauty of girls faces, especially
their smiles. He made a catalog of smiles such as he made a catalog
of ice crystals. He often would question a strange girl on the street
who was smiling in a certain way. "I found many possessing charming
smiles. When complimented and questioned if they knew why they smiled
prettily, the lucky possessors answer was invariably 'no.' " One wonders
what unspoken questions the girls had after such encounters!
In 1924 the first research grant ever awarded by the American Meteorological
Society was given to Bentley for ". . .40 years of extremely patient
work." The grant was no doubt small but it was the recognition by the
scientific community that meant most to Bentley. He had never been overly
concerned with money, and certainly made no attempt to make his studies
into a profit-making venture. It is likely that he could have, had he
wanted to. In the balance sheet of life he gave the acquisition of money
a very low priority. In 1926 he made this clear when he said, "From
a practical standpoint I suppose I would be considered a failure. It
has cost me $15,000 in time and materials to do the work and I have
received less than $4,000 from it."
A few years later Dr. William J. Humphreys, chief physicist for the
United States Weather Bureau, responding to requests from all over the
country to preserve in one collection the best of the Bentley photomicrographs,
organized a drive to obtain the necessary financial support. He was
successful, and Bentley turned to the enormous task of sorting through
some 4,500 photomicro graphs. For one reason or another the work went
slowly but, finally, in the summer of 1931 the material was handed in
to the publisher. In November the book, "Snow Crystals," was published.
It had a short introduction by Humphreys, but by far the major part
of the book was a magnificent collection of nearly 2,500 photomicrographs.
Most of the pictures were of various forms of the ice crystal; about
100 were of frost and dew. In Jericho Bentley received a copy of the
book but, unfortunately, we have no record of how he felt when he held
in his hands the work of a lifetime, a work now preserved for all the
world to see.
But winter was fast approaching and he had little time to admire the
book. He was 66 years old, and though in good health did not get around
or do things quite as rapidly as he had before. The camera had to be
ready for the first snow. This was the same camera with which he had
taken his first photomicrograph 46 years before. It was old, it was
battered, but it still worked. With it he had taken his 5,381st photomicrograph
on the first of March of the preceding spring. He looked forward to
the winter ahead with as much zest as he had approached that first winter
with the camera.
He made routine entries in his log book of weather conditions, entries
that marched over the pages and through the years to give a unique record
of weather in that part of Vermont. On Monday, the 7th of December,
1931, he finished his entry, "Cold north wind afternoon. Snow Flying."
That was the last entry Wilson Bentley was ever to make.
The following week both his nephew and wife knew that something was
wrong. Bentley stayed in bed for several days, but he refused any help.
Nothing was wrong, he said, he had taken care of himself for over 40
years and he didn't need any help now. But by the end of the next week
it was clear that something was very much wrong. A doctor was called
but it was too late. Wilson Bentley died of pneumonia on the afternoon
of the 23rd of December, 1931.
The following day the obituary columns of many a newspaper across the
country reported his death. But perhaps the most poignant and understanding
comments came from his own hometown paper.
Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin
declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley
was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the
snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not
see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to
Truly, greatness blooms in quiet corners and flourishes under strange
circumstances. For Wilson Bentley was a greater man than many a millionaire
who lives in luxury of which the 'Snowflake Man' never dreamed.
His friends and neighbors had understood him after all.
In writing this brief account of the life of Wilson Bentley I have
not been completely objective. I didn't intend to be; in fact, I couldn't
be. Any biographical account must be partly subjective, for all the
facts that detail a person's life are never known, even by the person
himself. In Bentley's case the facts are few and far between. I have
talked to many people about Bentley and written to many more. I believe
I know most of the published material by and about Bentley, but still
the gaps exist. I need help in filling these gaps, for I would like
to attempt the much more detailed biography that Bentley deserves. I
would appreciate it if you would share with me any information you may
have on Bentley. If you knew him, if you heard him lecture, if you have
any pictures of him or any of his letters I would be most happy to hear
from you. His letters especially would be very welcome. The voluminous
correspondence that was in the farmhouse at the time of his death appears
to have been lost. But much must still exist; the few letters that have
been sent to me have been very informative.
I cannot list here all those with whom I have corresponded or talked
with. But there are three I must mention. Mrs. Harold Hunt of Jericho,
the former Amy Bentley who as a child lived in the other side of the
Bentley farmhouse, has been very helpful with her childhood memories
of Wilson Bentley. Miss Blair Williams of the University of Vermont
is to be complimented for her efforts to tell what she knows of the
Bentley story not only to me, but through television to the citizens
of Vermont. And to Miss Ruth Nash of Pollack Pines, California, and
her indomitable spirit, my thanks for her lively and detailed accounts
of Jericho and Wilson Bentley of some 70 years ago.
The Major Scientific Publications of Wilson A. Bentley
- Bentley, W. A., and G. H. Perkins. A study of snow crystals. Appleton's
Pop. Sci. Mon. 53-1 (May 1898), 75-82.
A description of snowflake photography is given. Three pages of
plates are shown.
- Bentley, W. A. Twenty years' study of snow crystals. Mon. Wea.
Rev. 29-5 (May 1901), 212-14.
This is his first paper in the Monthly Weather Review.
- Bentley, W. A. Studies among the snow crystals during the winter
of 1901-2, with additional data collected during previous winters.
Mon. Wea. Rev. 30-13 (Annual 1902), 607-16.
Here he attempts to classify the crystals as a function of temperature
and to deduce from the crystal form the temperature and wind profile
within the cloud. This was the major contribution in this paper.
In this he was far ahead of his time. The paper is accompanied by
- Bentley, W. A. Studies of raindrops and raindrop phenomena. Mon.
Wea. Rev. 32-10 (Oct. 1904), 450-56.
This is the first study of raindrops in the United States and one
of the best ever carried out. He sampled from 70 storms and made
deductions concerning the segment of the Storm that gave drops of
certain sizes. He commented on a relation betWean lightning and
drop size and discussed the evaporation of drops. His greatest insight
was the recognition of the dual origin of rain. It can evolve from
snow or via coalescence. Here again Bentley was many years ahead
of his time. All the raindrop samples were obtained with his flour
- Bentley, W. A. Snow rollers. Mon. Wea. Rev. 34-7 (July
- Bentley, W. A. Studies of frost and ice crystals. Mon. Wea.
Rev. 35-8-12 (Aug.- Dec. 1907), 348-52, 397403, 43944, 512-16,
This is a long and detailed account which includes 279 photomicrographa
of frost and hail. He discusses at length the origin of frost crystals
and their classification. He also discusses the formation of hail.
- Bentley, W. A. Photomicrographa of snow crystals, and methods of
reproduction. Mon. Wea. Rev. 46-S (Aug.1918), 359-60.
- Bentley, W. A. The magic beauty of snow and dew. Nat. Geog.
Meg. 43-1 (Jan. 1923), 103-112.
The short text is accompanied by over 100 photomicrographa of ice
crystals, frost patterns, and dew. He says the beauty of snow was
known long ago for in the book of Job is "Hast thou entered into
the treasures of the Snow?"
- Bentley, W. A. Forty years' study of snow crystals. Mon. Wea.
Rev. 52-11 (Nov. 1924), 530-32.
Bentley's collection now numbers 4,200 photomicrographa. In this
article he discusses, among other things, bubbles in ice crystals
and the supercooling of cloud drops to around 0 degrees F.
- Bentley, W. A. Some recent treasures of the snow. Mon. Wea.
Rev. 55-8 (Aug. 1927), 358-59.
He now has over 4,700 photomicrographs. He talks of past years
and tells of his work with Professor Barnes at McGill University.
He mentions an increased interest the world over in snow crystals.
His text alternates from scientific talk to exclamations of beauty.
He ends with "Perhaps it is not too much to say that the results
of his studies form one of the 'little romances of science.'"
- Bentley, W. A. Conical snow. Mon. Wea. Rev. 59-10 (Oct.1931),
This is a short paper of only two paragraphs. The same paper, with
an added first sentence, was in Science, 75-1945 (8 Apr.
- Bentley, W. A., and W. J. Humphreys. Snow Crystals. New
York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1931. 227 pp.
An unabridged and unaltered replication of the work was published
by Dover Publications in 1962. It is a paperback and well worth
the $3. The book contains only about 10 pages of text, but about
200 pages of photomicrographs. Nearly 2,500 photomicrographs are
shown, most of snow crystals but some of dew, frost, and hail.