Snowflake Photographer

The science and technology of taking pictures of tiny snowflakes in the early 1900s.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- Snowflakes. They are beautiful and fragile -- and very difficult to photograph. But that didn’t stop one scientist from trying.

Can you imagine how hard it would be to photograph a teeny-tiny, individual snowflake crystal? Then imagine the challenges that Wilson Bentley faced back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"Wilson Bentley pioneered in photographing snow crystals, snowflakes and raindrops. He was a farmer by trade and a scientist by passion," said Terry Nathan, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis.

"When snowflakes are falling by the billions from clouds, through photography, we can freeze that motion, understand how fast it’s falling, how those snowflakes might be connected to the cloud itself and the nature of the storm. Photography allows us to see things that are beyond normal human vision," said Nathan.

Bentley took what are called photo-micrographs that were detailed pictures of snow crystals.

“A photomicrograph is simply connecting a camera to a microscope so that you can get very detailed, close-up pictures. Now, with Wilson Bentley, there were challenges; he worked under very tough conditions. It was cold. It was snowing. He had to collect these snow crystals on a little black board, take them into his unheated woodshed to photograph.

“He had to transfer that snow crystal from the board to the microscope slide, which is a very delicate process, and he used initially a little sliver from a broom, his mother’s broom to get that onto the slide, he even had to kind of jury-rig a focusing knob, a string running to the microscope because he couldn’t reach it, so he turned this little knob, and he used that mostly his whole life,” said Nathan.

Bentley's work led to better camera technology like the multi-angle snowflake camera, which tracks the speed of falling snowflakes and the fast-line scanning camera, which measures the 2-D shape of raindrops.

"He made over 5,000 photomicrographs over 46 years, and those are now in many museums, the Smithsonian and other places,” concluded Nathan.

A man ahead of his time left a legacy for science in snowflake photos that won't melt away anytime soon.

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Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.