Wilson A. Bentley: The Man Who Photographed Snowflakes

How do you photograph a snowflake? It’s an easy enough question, but one that throws up a host of problems. For one, how do you capture one single snowflake, without crushing or damaging it? Secondly, how do you keep it from melting long enough to get it in front of a camera lens? And even then, how on earth do you guarantee that you’ll be able to see it in any kind of detail?

Despite all those difficulties, one man not only managed to photograph a snowflake in astonishingly beautiful detail, but he did so more than 100 years ago—and went on to produce such an impressive library of snowflake images that his research is credited with establishing the theory that no two snowflakes are alike.

Wilson Alwyn “Willie” Bentley was born on a small farmstead in Jericho, Vermont, on February 9, 1865. His mother, a former schoolteacher, owned a microscope which she had used in her lessons and which Bentley—who had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge fueled by reading his mother’s entire set of encyclopedias as a child—soon became fascinated by. But alongside the fragments of stones and birds’ feathers that Bentley collected and observed through his microscope, from an early age his curiosity landed on one subject: snowflakes.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Working during the winter from a freezing cold room at the back of the family farmhouse, Bentley would collect airborne ice crystals on the microscope’s slide, and quickly work to focus on them before they began to melt or lose their shape. In the early days of his work, he simply recorded the countless different shapes and forms he saw by drawing them as best he could in a notebook. But knowing full well that these rough sketches were no substitute for the astonishing complexity that he saw under his microscope, he soon sought other ways to record what he discovered.

Bentley asked his father for a bellows camera—an early type of still camera, with a pleated, accordion-like body that could be used to alter the distance between the lens and the photographic plate—and with no photographic training himself, attached a microscope lens. What followed was a long and immensely frustrating period of trial and error, with innumerable failed attempts along the way. But finally, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Bentley succeeded in taking a single perfect image. He later wrote:

"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."

Bentley is now credited with taking the earliest known photograph of a single snowflake in the history of photography. He was just shy of 20 years old at the time—and he wasn’t done yet.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For more than a decade, he continued to perfect not only his photographic skills, but his snowflake-collecting technique too. Working swiftly (and mainly outside) to avoid the risk of them melting or evaporating, Bentley would collect the snowflakes on a tray, covered with a swatch of black velvet, that he would leave outside during bad weather. Individual snowflakes could then be transferred onto a pre-chilled glass microscope slide using a small wooden peg, where they could be photographed in astonishing detail. Bentley eventually amassed a library of several hundred snowflake images—and as word spread of his work, it soon attracted the attention of scientists at the nearby University of Vermont.

George Henry Perkins, a professor of natural history and the official state geologist of Vermont [PDF], persuaded Bentley to write, with his assistance, an article outlining both his method of photographing snowflakes, and his groundbreaking findings. Although initially reluctant (Bentley was an introverted character, and reportedly believed his modest home-schooling could not possibly have led to him discovering anything that wasn’t already known to science), he eventually agreed, and in May 1898 published A Study of Snow Crystals. In it, Bentley’s writing shows just how passionate he was about his subject:

"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!"

Several more articles in ever more weighty publications—including Harper’s Monthly, Popular Mechanics, and even National Geographic—followed, and soon Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley’s astonishing research became known nationwide. He began giving talks and lectures on his work all over the country, and slides of his astounding snowflake photographs were sold all across America to schools and colleges, museums, and even jewelers and fashion designers looking for inspiration for their latest creations. And throughout it all, Bentley continued to work.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

But not without controversy. When, in 1892, a German scientist named Gustav Hellmann asked a colleague to photograph snowflakes, the resulting flake photos were nowhere near as gorgeous or symmetrical as Bentley's. Eventually, Hellmann accused Bentley of manipulating his photographs. According to New Scientist [PDF]:

"What is clear is that Bentley gave his white-on-white images a black background by scraping the emulsion off the negatives around the outline of each snowflake. But did he sometimes scrape away asymmetries too? Hellmann claimed he had 'mutilated the outlines,' and Bentley’s defense of his methods is not entirely reassuring. 'A true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.'"

Though their feud raged on for decades, Bentley never changed his methods of photographing snowflakes. And though he expanded his studies during warmer weather to include investigations into the structure and formation of dew, mist, and rainfall—he even proposed radical meteorological theories linking raindrop size to different storm types [PDF] and devised a way to measure the size of raindrops that involved letting them hit a tray containing a layer of sifted flour, then weighing the ball of paste each raindrop produced as it hit—Bentley’s first love always remained the same. Having continued his painstaking research, by the 1920s he had amassed a gallery of more than 5000 snowflake images, some 2400 of which were selected for publication in a book, Snow Crystals, in 1931.

Later that year, however, his work finally got the better of him: After walking six miles home during a blinding blizzard, Bentley caught pneumonia and died at the family home in Jericho on December 23, 1931. He left his extraordinary library of photomicrographs to his brother Charlie, whose daughter donated them to the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York in 1947.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

From September 23 to September 24, customers can get as much as 80 percent off home decor, furniture, WFH essentials, kitchen appliances, and more during the Wayfair's Way Day 2020 sale. Additionally, when you buy a select Samsung appliance during the sale, you'll also get a $200 Wayfair gift card once the product ships. Make sure to see all that the Way Day 2020 sale has to offer. These prices won’t last long, so we've also compiled a list of the best deals for your home below.

Rugs

AllModern/Wayfair

- Mistana Hillsby Power Loom Beige Saffron/Teal Rug $49 (save $97)

- Wrought Studios Shuff Abstract Blue Area Rug $100 (save $105)

- All Modern Lydia Southwestern Cream/Charcoal Area Rug $49 (save $100)

- Union Rustic Gunter Power Loom Blue/Khaki Rug $22 (save $38)

- Willa Arlo Interiors Omri Oriental Light Gray/Ivory Area Rug $49 (save $149)

Furniture

Langley Street/Wayfair

- Alwyn Home 14-inch Medium Gel Memory Foam King Mattress $580 (save $1420)

- Andover Mills Pascal Upholstered King Bed Frame $318 (save $832)

- Sol 72 Outdoor 8-Piece Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $650 (save $1180)

- Langley Street Darren 68-Inch Tuxedo Arm Sofa $340 (save $1410)

- Three Posts Tyronza Coffee Table $147 (save $193)

Kitchen

NutriBullet/Wayfair

- Cuisinart 11-Piece Aluminum Non Stick Cookware Set $100 (save $200)

- Rachael Ray Cucina 10-Piece Non-Stick Bakeware Set $92 (save $108)

- NutriBullet Rx Smart 45-Ounce Personal Countertop Blender $124 (save $56)

- Henckels Graphite 13-Piece Knife Block Set $160 (save $340)

- DeLonghi ECP3220 15-Bar Pump Espresso Machine $120 (save $90)

Electronics

Samsung/Wayfair

- Samsung 36-Inch French Door Energy Smart Refrigerator $3600 (save $400)

- Cosmo 30-Inch Freestanding Electric Range Oven $1420 (save $1580)

- Whynter 19-Bottle Single Zone Built-In Wine Refrigerator $380 (save $232)

- bObsweep PetHair Robotic Vacuum Cleaner with Mop Attachment $226 (save $443)

- Rowenta Focus 1700 Iron with Burst of Steam $68 (save $47)

Work From Home Essentials

Foundery Select/Wayfair

- Techi Mobili Adjustable Laptop Cart $50 (save $20)

- Foundry Select Arsenault Farmhouse Desk $210 (save $190)

- Symple Stuff Clay Mesh Task Chair $128 (save $121)

- Three Posts Salina Standard Bookcase $183 (save $617)

- Lorell Hard Floor Chairmat $52 (save $39)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Notorious B.I.G.'s Iconic "King of New York" Crown Is Expected to Fetch More Than $200,000 at Auction

B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y), taken by Barron Claiborne.
B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y), taken by Barron Claiborne.
Sotheby's

The crown the Notorious B.I.G. donned for a portrait session on March 6, 1997, isn’t inherently valuable. Its gold base and inlaid gemstones are made of plastic, and P. Diddy even reportedly said Biggie looked like “the Burger King” while wearing it. As a cultural object, however, it’s priceless.

The legendary rapper was shot and killed just three days after he sat down for the session, and the photo of him staring dolefully into the camera lens, crown askew, is one of the most iconic images in music history.

The Notorious Burger King.Sotheby's

Soon we’ll find out how much someone is willing to pay to take the headgear home with them: Sotheby’s is auctioning it off on September 15, and it’s expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000. The crown, which is missing one point, still has pieces of foam along the inner rim that were added to make it fit more snugly. It’s also signed by the photographer, Barron Claiborne—and by Biggie, the “King of New York,” himself.

Claiborne's inscription reads "Crown from Biggie KONY Shot. 3-6-97."Sotheby's

Along with the crown, the buyer will receive three 36-inch-by-40-inch prints: the regular B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y) photograph; a 10th anniversary edition, titled Notorious B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y) Tunz-O-Gunz, which recreates the classic photo with a collage of tiny images of guns; and a contact sheet with nine shots from the session.

The lot is part of an auction devoted entirely to the history of hip-hop, a first for any major international auction house. Other items include a collection of love letters Tupac Shakur wrote to his high school sweetheart, Salt-N-Pepa’s matching “Push It” jackets, and more. You can explore the other offerings here.