Addicted to Snow

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Feb 28, 2015

“The very fact of snow is such an amazement.”
Roger Ebert

There are very few people I know who are neutral about snow. There are those who love it and they can never get enough of it. Others, when they see their first winter snowflakes, begin counting the days until spring. 

Some months ago Isaac’s family moved to Pennsylvania from Florida so his parents could begin working at the University of Valley Forge. He is 11 years old and he had never seen snow. You can imagine his excitement when even the possibility of snow was predicted. Years ago my cousin married a native of Brazil and when she saw snow for the first time she wrote to her parents and described it as cotton falling out of the sky.

Today I would like to tell you about a man who was addicted to snow. His name was Wilson A. Bentley but he was better known as “The Snowflake Man.” Born on February 9, 1865, in a valley on the east end of Jericho in northern Vermont, Bentley never went to school until he was 14 years old. He credited his mother, a former school teacher, with his love of learning which made it possible for him at 15 to begin the work to which he devoted his life.

At age 60 Bentley reflected, “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,” Bentley continued, “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.” 

Over the next two years, young Bentley peered into that microscope there in a cold room in the back of the farmhouse. The beauty and intricacy of the crystals mesmerized him. He started to make hundreds of drawings of what he saw. 

One day he learned about cameras that could take photographs through a microscope. For over a year, Bentley experimented with the microscope and a camera and on January 15, 1885, he obtained the first photomicrographs ever taken of a snowflake. 

His words capture his excitement: “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.”

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. 

His shyness and lack of formal education made him feel like his work was unworthy of public value. But finally he was convinced to publish an article in 1898 in Popular Scientific Monthly. He studied the snowflake with passion and he wrote about it with passion, “Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics.”

Bentley would go on to capture more than 5,000 snowflakes during his 66 years and his work became research material for colleges and universities throughout the world. He published many articles for magazines and journals including Scientific American and National Geographic.

The Snowflake Man once said, “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.”

Wilson A. Bentley was indeed addicted to snow.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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