This Place in History: Snowflake Bentley

Vermont Historical Society

JERICHO, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History‘, we’re in Jericho Center with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society.

“There’s snow on the ground, so I figured we should talk about Snowflake Bentley today. We’ve got a really special opportunity to talk with his great-grandniece, Sue Richardson. She’s going to meet us at the Snowflake Bentley Exhibit and teach us all about her great-granduncle,” said Perkins.

“His real name was Wilson Alwyn Bentley and he was my great-great-uncle. He was always, from his very early age, interested and fascinated by nature. He loved roaming the back hills, the fields, everything about nature, including, of course, snowflakes,” began Richardson.

“When he was about 15 years old, his mother gave him a microscope that she had had from her days as a schoolteacher. That really opened up a whole world to him. The first time he looked at a snowflake under a microscope, he was captivated.”

“For his 17th birthday, after much discussion and with the help of an inheritance from his maternal grandmother, his parents purchased this camera for him. In 1882, it cost one hundred dollars, which was a tremendous amount of money when you consider land was selling for about $6 an acre, at that time,” explained Richardson.

“Now, that doesn’t look like any camera I’ve ever seen. There have been some modifications?” asked Perkins.

“There have been, and that is the microscope that’s mounted on the front of it. The microscope is what enabled the enlargement of the snow crystals so that they could be photographed,” answered Richardson.

“You’ve probably all seen pictures of folks with these old bellows cameras, standing behind them with the black cloth over their heads. Well, that would be a pretty long reach to try and focus that microscope, from standing behind the camera. So, Willie came up with this ingenious device. He mounted that small wooden disc with a smaller one inside of it, one on each side of the camera. He wrapped that string that you see around it, up through the eyehole and around the focus knob on the microscope, back through this side, and wrapped in the opposite direction. So, by standing behind it, he could turn those discs and focus the microscope. It took him two years of experimentation before he got his first successful photograph on January 15, 1885,” answered Richardson.

“It became his life’s work. It became his life’s passion. And he wanted to share that with the world. So, he never charged people. Only five cents, which is what it cost for a negative. Tiffany’s, the famed New York jeweler, bought a set of his negatives for jewelry designs. He had them published in newspapers, magazines. He wrote many, many articles and many different scientific magazines, as well.”

“He was very involved with the National Weather Service and with the American Meteorological Society when it was founded in 1919. He received the first grant ever given by the American Meteorological Society for $25 in 1924, in recognition of the importance of his work. The things that he discovered about snow crystals, how they formed, are still true today. He kept very detailed weather records, which were used to study weather patterns. He was truly ahead of his time,” concluded Richardson.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here.

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