The first snow in New England marks the beginning of dark days and frigid temperatures — grueling conditions endured in exchange for the reward of spring.
But a century ago, Vermont farmer Wilson Alwyn Bentley delighted at the very thought of winter. And the first snowfall meant the start of a new season of research he hoped to share with the world. The more snow that graced the Green Mountain State, the better.
Bentley is credited as the first person to ever photograph snow crystals — commonly called snowflakes — up close. His painstaking process and hobby was perfected over decades using a homemade contraption involving a microscope mounted to a bellows camera. His passion for photographing snow earned him the nicknames “Snowflake” and “Snowflake Man,” the latter etched on his grave when he died in 1931.
And his life’s work formed the basis for the old adage “no two snowflakes are alike.”
“I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” Bentley said in 1925. “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.”
Bentley was once regarded as a bit of a kook. But nearly a century after his death, each new snowstorm in the quaint northern Vermont town of Jericho recalls Bentley’s groundbreaking scientific and artistic contributions.
“Until his death . . . every winter, and every snowstorm, he was out there,” catching snowflakes on a tray and taking photographs of them, said Sue Richardson, Bentley’s great-grandniece and a Jericho Historical Society board member.
“He really was creative and way ahead of his time,” she said.
Bentley was born on his family’s farm in 1865, just before the end of the Civil War. From a young age, he was fascinated by nature, a love he said was passed down from his mother and father.
“Yes, it must have been a heritage,” Bentley told the Globe in 1921. After his mother gifted him a microscope at the age of 15, Bentley set about studying anything that could fit below its lens. When he saw a snowflake up close for the first time, it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession, Richardson said.
The problem, Bentley soon found, was that you could only marvel at the exquisite nature of a snowflake for so long before it disappeared. So to memorialize the immaculate lines and patterns each flake seemed to offer, Bentley at first tried to draw them.
“But it didn’t work,” he told the Globe. “You see, a flake melts too quickly and I found that the method was very unsatisfactory.”
What he needed was a camera. Photography, however, was still relatively new at the time, and cameras were expensive. In 1882, thanks to an inheritance, the family was able to purchase one.
Even with the tools at his disposal, it would still be a few years of trial and error before Bentley would capture his very first successful photograph of a snow crystal. He achieved the feat on Jan. 15, 1885, using his bellows camera hooked up to a new microscope and laced with a system of wheels and cord to adjust the focusing screw from the other side of the device.
Getting a snowflake from the sky to the microscope also required some ingenuity. Bentley would catch them on a special tray, transfer the flakes oh-so-delicately to a chilled glass plate, and proceed to take images using his rig.
“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!” Bentley said, according to the biography “Snowflake Man,” by Duncan C. Blanchard. “It was the greatest moment of my life.”
At the start, many looked at Bentley’s pursuit of happiness through documenting snow crystals as obscure and odd. Scientists scoffed, and residents were skeptical.
“People in town thought he was crazy,” Richardson said — including some family members. “They thought he was quote ‘cracked,’ wasting his time on snowflakes.”
Richardson said her great-granduncle ignored the negativity and carried on. And in doing so, he solidified his name in the history books.
By the time the Globe finally profiled him and observed his meticulous methods, Bentley had mastered his craft and risen to international fame for revealing nature’s “infinite variety” of snowflakes — “no two of them alike!”
“The great men in the world of science were startled out of their composure. They have at last admitted that this simple-mannered, unobtrusive hill-road farmer-scientist at Jericho is a genius,” said the article, titled “Fame Comes to Snowflake Bentley After 35 Patient Years.”
Museums from all over were ordering prints from Bentley to be featured in exhibits. When the federal government caught wind of his works, they sent a representative from Washington, D.C. to see him.
“He sold sets of the negatives — copies of the glass negatives — to colleges and universities the world over,” said Richardson, and “a set to Tiffany’s, the New York jeweler, for use in jewelry design.”
Even as his name rose to prominence in the annals of art and science, he remained at his humble Vermont headquarters, tinkering away. Bentley would often “forget fire, and food, and everything” while dashing to and fro to catch a new snow crystal and get it beneath his microscope in time.
By the end of his life, Bentley had photographed more than 5,000 snow crystals, released a book of his images, and wrote numerous articles about his work and weather observations that were featured in scientific journals and publications like National Geographic and Popular Mechanics.
He died in 1931, after catching pneumonia while walking home through a raging blizzard to — what else? — take photographs of snowflakes, according to the Burlington Free Press.
“That was truly his passion,” Richardson said. “How many people get to live their life and follow their dream and passion like he did? Not too many.”
There’s a valuable lesson in the progression of Bentley’s life, from someone people perceived as foolish to respected researcher, she said.
“Don’t let anybody steal your joy,” Richardson said. “Just stick to it.”
Snowflakes melt quickly. Dreams don’t have to.