First photograph of a snowflake
Wilson Bentley
first first
United States (Jericho)

The first photograph of an individual snow crystal was taken on 15 January 1885 by Wilson Bentley (USA) on his family's farm near Jericho, Vermont, USA.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on 9 February 1865 at the small dairy farm his parents owned in the foothills of Bolton Mountain, Vermont. The farm was too remote for Wilson to attend the one-room schoolhouse in Jericho, so he was taught by his mother, a former schoolteacher. As a child, he developed a fascination with the natural world, spending his days outdoors sketching and taking notes of what he saw.

When he was 15 years old, his mother gave him an old microscope she once used in her teaching. This instrument quickly became something of an obsession to the teenager, as he would later write, "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."

It was the falling snow that fascinated him most, however. He began catching snowflakes on a piece of black-painted wood and running with them to the freezing-cold utility room where he kept his microscope. He would then gaze at these intricate, symmetrical shapes and try to sketch them in the short time before they melted away.

In an interview he gave later in life, he described his feelings during this period:

"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 microscopes. If I could have such an apparatus, I believed I could make permanent records of snow crystals."

When he was 17, Bentley managed to persuade his parents to get him a glass-plate camera that could be mounted to the microscope. He had no training in the use of the complex and cumbersome machine, and he was trying to do something that had never been done before. As a result, it was two years of exhausting trial and error before he figured out the settings and techniques required to get clear micro-photographs of ice crystals.

For the next 13 years, Bentley worked in isolation. He found the time, between day-to-day work on the growing farm, to keep a detailed log-book of the weather, the changing seasons and other natural phenomena. He combined these observations with his snowflake photography, and began to form theories about how and why snowflakes form, and why they differed so much from one snowfall to the next.

When he began to publish his work in the early 1900s, many academics believed that his photographs were faked. Once this initial scepticism passed, however, he became widely respected for the unmatched expertise he had in his chosen meteorological niche. His publications revealed that the form of each snowflake told a story about the conditions of its formation – the winds, the humidity and the varying temperatures it encountered at different altitudes. He was able to classify them according to the weather conditions that created them, and predict what types of snowflakes would form from different storms (his favourite snowflakes were the ones that formed on the western edge of eastward-moving storms).

Although he appreciated the recognition he received for his discoveries, his motivation remained his love of the beauty he found in snowstorms. In 1925 he remarked, "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!"

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley died at 66 years old on 23 December 1931 of pneumonia contracted after venturing outside in one last blizzard. The final entry in his logbook read "Cold north wind afternoon. Snow flying".