Berlin has been entombed in snow and ice since December and winter’s theoretical allure is undermined by the tedious effort of getting anywhere on foot (cycling is long a thing of the past). But sometimes when it starts snowing, I look out onto a dark window ledge and for a moment I can see the tiny individual flakes before they melt or get covered in even more snow. And then I realise what Wilson Bentley was so excited about.

Born on this appropriately wintry day in 1865, Bentley was obsessed with the natural phenomenon of snow and in 1885 he became a pioneer of snowflake photography (admittedly, it never became a particularly crowded field). For over 45 years Bentley perfected his technique, spending his winters with a self-made contraption which allowed individual flakes to be photographed through a microscope against a black background. It is to him that we owe proof of the now-commonly known rule by which no two flakes look alike, but Bentley himself was driven as much by the sheer beauty of his subjects as by the scientific value of his work.

In an example of occupational hazard raised to the level of dramatic irony, in 1931 Bentley died of pneumonia, which he had contracted in a blizzard.

Original prints of Bentley’s work recently went on sale in New York.


  1. Pingback: Wilson Bentley | snowflake photographs « Strange Flowers

  2. Linda Hollander

    So, James, I had to come back to this after looking at your more recent post. Here’s something I’m curious about, so I wonder if you or your readers might have an answer?

    I REALLY looked hard at these and, while there are not two the same…there are a number that are very similar, as even a cursory glance would reveal…but wait…there’s more! I’m looking away and I’m thinking “well, these are really the same”, but within a similar structure, they are different, at a very fine level of detail (if I were a beleiver in a Divine Power, I would think He put one of his more ambitious angels to this task!)

    So, why? I’m thinking it must have to do with the weather on the day of a particular snowfall…humidity, air pressure, cloud pattern, I don’t know, but someone must…anybody know of a quite elementary meterological book on snowflakes? suitable perhaps for a child of about five??? (Taht would be me and my level of scientific knowledge, which has languished in my ever more obsessive search for the sexual endeavors of Lesbians in the 1890s! Hmmmm….)

    I’m looking at these snowflakes and listening to the Britten Adagio…God, life is great!


    • Oh Linda, I could write the entirety of my scienctific knowledge on a cocktail napkin and you’d still be able to wipe your mouth with it. This whole blog is an exercise in filling my head with the offcuts of history to make sure nothing useful gets in.

      But…someone smart may happen on these words and enlighten us both.

  3. Linda Hollander

    UH-OH, it’s the BARBER Adagio! See what I mean about senile???

  4. The two main factors influencing snowflake formation are temperature and humidity. If I remember correctly, a snowflake with wide triangles and hexigons is more likely at around 30F with higher humidity. Spikier, branching snowflakes are a result of — I believe — temperatures around 26F. I might have the forms and tempertures wrong, but in any case, as a snowflake falls or gets blown around, it passes through different zones of temperture and humidiity, which means that the shapes that grow outward from the snowflake’s center (triangles, hexagons, branches) are a kind of record of the snowflake’s path to the ground.

    If you look carefully at Bentley’s photographs, you’ll notice variations along the six sides of the snowflkes. The arms of the snowflake don’t inform each other, so they aren’t exact copies — but all six share more-or-less the same developmental history, so they’re all very similar.

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