home
resources
CD-ROM
Museum
Gift Shop
    contact messageboard newsletter

The Snowflake Man
The American Magazine, Feburary 1925
by Mary B. Mullet

Away up in northern Vermont there is a village by the good old Bible name of Jericho. If it hadn't been for one man, the great outside world might never have heard of that little town. Certainly, if it had not been for this one man, I never should have gone there. Because of him, however, I did go. The one daily train left me there on a keen, cold day not long ago --abandoned me, I might almost say, for I was the only one out of twelve passengers who seemed willing to take a chance on Jericho.

For that matter, I wasn't bound for the village itself. My mecca was a farm about six miles away, a farm where lives a man of extraordinary passion. For almost sixty years --that is, practically his whole life --he has followed what I cannot help calling a Dream of Beauty.

I have found that his name, W. A. Bentley, doesn't seem to mean anything to most people. But if I call him "the snowflake man" it often brings a quick recognition. Some of you may have seen reproductions of his marvelous photographs of snowflakes--snow crystals, as he prefers to call them.

Scientists, both in this country and in Europe, have known of him and of his work for years.

At first, they paid his pictures the highest possible compliment, the compliment of saying that they were too good to be true! Later, when these doubting Thomases became convinced that the pictures were genuine photomicrgraphs, photographs made with a camera with a microscope attachment, they paid him the tribute of a sincere and grateful admiration.

Yes, really grateful! Professor W.B. Snow, of the University of Wisconsin-Snow is an apt name in this connection-has been buying the Bentley photographs and slides for years. After he had received the pictures of the 1916-17 "crop", as Mr. Bentley calls it, he wrote:

"They are beautiful and give me the most exquisite pleasure, as they will do over and over again, for I shall see them repeatedly during the coming year. You are doing a great work in enabling students and scientists, and people in many walks of life, to see and to appreciate the infinity and prodigality as well as the beauty of nature."

Infinity and prodigality are big words, in more ways than one. But they are not extravagant in this case. Mr. Bentley has made almost four thousand five hundred pictures of snow crystals--and no two of these crystals are alike.

More marvelous still, Mr. Bentley declares that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, no snowflake that ever has fallen was an exact duplicate of any other snowflake!! With profound humility, we acknowledge that the Great Designer is incomparable and unapproachable in the infinite prodigality and beauty of His works.

But I confess that my visit to Jericho gave me still another reason for feeling humble. Out in that remote farmhouse, I sat until far into the night listening to an extraordinary story, the story of how the Great Designer found an interpreter in an insignificant country boy.

It was a story of passionate and lifelong devotion, of an ingenuity that overcame all obstacles and of a courageous patience that persisted in the face of indifference and of ridicule.

I knew that some of the folks of that section thought W.A. Bentley was, to say the least, pretty strange. Evidently it was the old, old story--the prophet wasn't much honored in his own country.

"What do the people around here think of you and your work?" I asked him that night. We were sitting in a room which was an amazingly beautiful photographs lying on the table beside us. It was a big, bare-floored place: at one side a huge wood box and a kitchen stove, at the other a piano heaped with piles of sheet music. There was the disorderliness of a bachelor's housekeeping. Bentley never has married. Only one woman has counted for anything in his life. That woman was his mother, whom he adored.

The house is a big one, too big for his purse. By daylight I had seen how badly it needed repair. A young couple--Bentley's nephew and his wife--live in part of the house. The Snowflake Man keeps bachelor's quarters in the other wing.

Strange surroundings in which to pursue a Dream of Beauty! And the little man opposite me seemed yet more strange, in the role of interpreter to the Great Designer.

Perhaps that is all that some of his neighbors can see: a strange little man, in an ill-kept house, spending his life in work that leaves his purse almost empty.

They pass by that work as unheedingly as they, and we, trample with careless feet the snowflakes themselves. I dare say we all are doing the same sort of thing: going through the world, indifferent to its wonders, not even knowing they are there! More blind and deaf to the beauty of the lives that touch our own than we are to the mutely exquisite appeal of the snowflakes we crush in passing.

When I asked him what his neighbors think of him, Mr. Bentley smiled; but it was a smile that gave me a little twinge of pain--a patient smile, with a trace of bitterness.

"Oh," he said, "I guess they've always believed that I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might fell 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 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 hey weren't interested. I had arranged to give my lecture the next night at another town, farther away. That evening it rained hard and I said to myself: 'If only six people in my town would come to hear me on a fine night, nobody will turn out in the rain! Especially where they are not my friends, but strangers." So I didn't go. But about eight o'clock they telephoned me from the other town: 'The church is full and we're waiting for you!"

"I realized then," he said, with his patient smile, "that my hometown folks didn't have a very high opinion of me. I think they have changed a little. A year or two ago I again tried the experiment of giving my lecture here in the vbiilage and my neighbors haad interest enough to come.

"I think they found my pictures beautiful. I doubt, though, they have changed thier opinion of me. They still think I'm a little cracked. I've just had to accept that opinion and try not to care. It doesn't hurt me--very much." That added phrase, "very much", told its own story. Indifference, ridicule, and lack of understanding do hurt. Appreciation is peculiarly sweet to us when, like charity, it begins at home.

"When did you become interested in snowflakes?" I asked.

"Almost sixty years ago, I guess," said Bentley, with a whimsical expression. "I was born in 1865, and I can't remember the time I didn't love the snow. I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. All that I am, or that I ever shall be, I owe to her. She had been a school teacher before she married my father, and she instilled in me her own love of knowledge and of the finer things of life. She had books, including a set of encyclopedias. I read them all."

"I was taught music, too." He looked across the kitchen stove toward the piano. "You would find some pretty good things, both old and new, among those piles of music," he said, with a touch of pride.

"And it was my mother who 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 slingshots, 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 the 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.

"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated., When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.

"I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver. I had read of cameras that photographed through microscope. If I could have such an apparatus, I believed I could make permanent records of snow crystals.

"When I was seventeen years old, my mother persuaded my father to buy me a camera and microscope which I have developed into the apparatus I am still using. I cost, even then, one hundred dollars. You can imagine, or perhaps you cannot, unless you know what the average farmer is like, how my father hated to spend money on what seemed to him a boy's ridiculous whim. But I don't think my love of beauty made me a worse farmer. This was only a ten-cow dairy farm when my father died My brother and I made it a twenty-cow farm--and I did my share of the work.

"I am still a farmer, although my nephew runs the place on shares. But I do a good deal toward improving it. I wish I could show you one of my pastures up on the hill. You would find great cairns of rocks which I made last summer, clearing them out of the field and so making it more valuable."

I wanted to know how he takes his photographs of snowflakes, so we went into another room--big and bare and absolutely stone cold!--where the negatives are made. I held a little oil lamp while he explained his apparatus. I shall give only a simple description of it here.

The camera has a bellows which allows it to be extended about three feet. The snowflake is on a regular microscope slide--a small rectangular piece of glass. This is inserted under the microscope, which is attached to the front of the camera. The usual eyepiece of the microscope is dispensed with, also the usual camera lens, the objective of the microscope serving instead.

Mr. Bentley found that his arms were not long enough to reach the adjustments in front when he was at the back of the camera getting the image in focus. So he rigged up a contrivance of wheels and a cord, which enables him to overcome his difficulty.

The camera is pointed toward a window, thus photographing through the snow crystal. The image is always magnified, the enlargements ranging from 64 to 3,600 times. The room, of course, must not be heated. Mr. Bentley is probably the only photographer who always wears heavy mittens at work! He discards them when he goes to the dark room to develop the plates. But he puts them on again, also an overcoat and cap and muffler, when he takes a trayful of fresh prints out of a flowing spring in the back yard to be washed by the ice-cold running water. Altogether, it is not what anyone would call a soft job.

"How do you catch your snowflakes?" I asked, transferring the lamp from one hand, numb with cold, to the other. "And how do you select the chosen few from among the millions upon millions of possible subjects?"

"I wish it were snowing now!" he said, with a regret I did not entirely share. "However," he added consolingly, "it might not be a good storm for my purpose. Some snows produce poor crystals. The finest ones generally come in the western quadrant of a widespread storm or blizzard. And, as these storms usually pass over from the west to east, this means that the best crystals are likely to come toward the end of a storm, not at the beginning.

"Most people think that the very large flakes, which are characteristic of some snowstorms, are the most beautiful. But that is simply because the crystals are large enough for us to see with the naked eye something of their beauty of form. In reality, these very large flakes are likely to be imperfect, when examined under the microscope. The finest crystals are medium or even small in size.

'The percentage of perfect crystals is not so great when a snowstorm is very thick and heavy and the reason is extremely interesting. come into the kitchen and I'll show you some pictures that will explain this reason." That was a welcome suggestion, as far as I was concerned. I sat on the wood box, thawing my fingers over the stove, while Mr. Bentley picked out several photographs. Apparently he had been utterly oblivious to the frigid temperature of the other room. I think he would have stood in there all night, amply warmed by the glow of his enthusiasm.

"Here," he said, showing me one of the pictures, "is a very curious thing. You see there are several crystals in this photograph. Do you notice that each of them is larger--extends out farther--on one side? And do you see that this enlarged part of a crystal is always on the side toward its neighbor? They seem to be trying to reach out and touch each other.

"Well, when a snowstorm is very thick, the crystals have formed in closer proximity to one another and we find them distorted by their neighbors. To be perfectly symmetrical, they must be outside the range of influence of other crystals. You see, they don't form instantly. They grow, beginning with a tiny nucleus, and developing around this nucleus a geometrical pattern of amazing regularity.

"Usually they re hexagonal; they have six sides or six branches. And the six sides will be exactly the same. Occasionally we get one with three sides, the three sides being absolutely alike, even to details which can be seen only under the microscope. It is just simply marvelous!" he said, almost to himself. "See those two tiny air bubbles,, hardly larger than pinpoints:" he went on, picking up another photograph. "Even those bubbles are repeated in every one of the six sections of this crystal. So are all the dozens of other details. There's law and order for you! Each snowflake is as different from its fellows as we human beings are from each other.. But the comparison changes there. For each snowflake, if allowed freedom to develop alone, is perfect according to its individual plan. It is one of nature's miracles.

"You asked how I catch my crystals," he went on, after a short pause. "I do it with this little wooden tray, which I made for that purpose. It is painted black so that the flakes will show against it. And I hold it by these wires at the ends so that my hands will not touch and warm the wood.

"When there is a snowstorm, I stand at the open door of a cold room and let a few flakes fall on this tray. I can see what their general form is and can tell pretty well whether they promise to be interesting. Of course I have photographed so many specimens that I'm not easily satisfied now. I want novel forms or unusually intricate and beautiful designs.

"If I don't think I have anything promising in my 'catch', I brush the tray clean with this turkey feather and allow some new flakes to fall on it.

"When I get one that seems interesting, I transfer it to a glass slide for examination under the microscope. At first I tried to brush it from the tray to the slide with a feather. But, no matter how careful I was, there was almost certain to be some slight damage to the crystals, so I had to devise another method.

'I use now this little pointed rod of wood, about an eighth of an inch in diameter. I delicately touch the point of the rod to the center of the crystal, lift it off, and lay it on the glass slide. This requires great sureness and lightness of touch.

"If, on examination, I decide that the crystal deserves to be photographed, I gently press it close to the glass, using the little wooden rod for that purpose. I have to work fast! Even in freezing temperature, a separate crystal quickly disappears, not by melting but by evaporation. Snow stays on the ground because when enough crystal below the surface have evaporated to fill the air spaces with moisture, evaporation ceases inside the mass. I have found that if I put several other crystals on the slide, around the one I want to photograph, this slightly slows evaporation. It gives the air more than one flake from which to absorb moisture, so they survive a few seconds longer. When the slide is ready, I insert it in the front of the microscope lens, focus it sharply, and expose the plate in the usual way, giving it from ten seconds to perhaps a hundred, according to circumstances.

"I never shall forget the disappointments that followed my early attempts. Here I was, with this expensive apparatus which had been given to me so reluctantly. I had been sure that I could do wonderful thins with it, but I failed over and over again. I could get nothing but a faint image on the plate, so dim that it was practically worthless.

"If there had only been someone to explain what was wrong. but away off here on a farm there was nobody to help me. Again and again I failed. The winter slipped away and I was almost heartbroken. But by the next season I had found the secret of my trouble. I began to use a very small 'stop'--a thin plate, with a tiny opening to shut out most of the light. With this, and a longer exposure, I got a clear image of greater intensity.

"The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good," said Bentley with genuine emotion, "I felt almost like falling to my knees beside that apparatus. I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.

"That was in 1884., when I was nineteen years old, but it was almost fourteen years before my work received any recognition. It was very discouraging. I knew I had something to give to the world--but no one seemed to care for it. I had very little money. I had to deny myself in every possible way in order to buy materials I needed for my pictures. I was all the time paying out--and not getting a cent in return.

"The first recognition came from Professor Perkins of the University of Vermont. He saw my pictures, bought some to use with his classes, and in 1898 helped me write my first article. Since then, many of the photographs have been reproduced in scientific publications, both in this country and in Europe." There is hardly a university in the United States or Canada that does not have some of his slides for use in class work.

"The recognition has been gratifying," he said, "but not very remunerative. As you see, I am a poor man, except in satisfaction I get out of my work. In that respect, I am one of the richest men in the world. I wouldn't change places with Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller for all their millions. I have my snowflakes!

"It is a curious fact that some winters produce much better crystals than othiers. Winter before last for example, I photographed only one hundred and fifty specimens and I got only seventy last year.Usually I get about three hundred during a season. If the snow comes in little granular pellets, there is not much chance of getting anything at all.

"Last winter I was to lecture in Buffalo before the Society of Natural Sciences just before I took the train at the village it began to snow and I can't tell you how I hated to leave! A snowstorm is always so exciting to me. I never know when I am going to find some wonderful prize. But this time, when we had gone down the line a few miles I saw that the flakes were becoming granular. Then I settled back, quite content. I knew I wasn't missing any chances.

"But we had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy!" he said, shaking his head mournfully. "In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken In transfering it to the slide." His voice actually shook with emotion. "It makes me almost cry, even now," he said, as if he were speaking of the death of a friend.

There seems to be something about water, in all forms, that fascinates Bentley. He has made hundreds of pictures of frost, including wonderful photographs of wndow panes, covered apparently with a regular jungle of exquisite ferns, strange feathery whirls or perhaps a miniature fir, like the white ghost of a Christmas tree.

He has photographed curious forms of hailstones, raindrops, clouds, still pools, and running streams always water in some form or other. But it is the snow that commands his really passionate interest. When he said that he wouldnt change places with Ford or Rockefeller, there was a ring of exultation in his voice. The indifference and ridicule of some people doesnt hurt-very much. He feels that he is serving the Great Designer; capturing the evanescent loveliness which, but for him, would be unappreciated-even unseen. And with that role he is content.


Home     Resources     CD-ROM     Museum     Gift shop     top