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London museum releases the photos, writing of Vermont's Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley for all the world to see

A photograph of a page with black and white detailed snowflakes
Natural History Museum
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Courtesy
The Natural History Museum in London purchased this book in 1899 directly from Bentley, which shows microphotographs of snowflakes. The museum has released a digital version of the book.

The Natural History Museum in London has digitized its collection of Wilson Bentley snow crystal photographs.

Bentley was a farmer in Jericho who developed a method of photographing snow crystals using a camera and a microscope he set up inside his barn.

A black and white photo of a man standing next to a large camera, sitting on a wooden box.
Jericho Historical Society
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Courtesy
Wilson Bentley was a Jericho, Vermont farmer who photographed snowflakes for nearly half a century between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

He took his first photograph in 1885 and worked every winter over the next 47 years, eventually photographing more than 5,000 snow crystals.

The museum’s special collections manager, Andrea Hart, says Bentley never profited much from his photos, but was rather much more interested in preserving his work, and having as many people admire the wonders of nature as possible.

“You know what strikes a chord with me, which is why, you know, he’s one of my absolute heroes as well, is the fact that he wanted to share this,” Hart said. “Even today the museum, and what it stands for is trying to educate, inspire, and, you know, bring on more of the natural world advocates, to people who care about the environment. You know that potentially was what Wilson himself was trying to do as well.”

“He had the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet. From the first snow crystal that he ever photographed, it was always about sharing this with the world. So I think it’s fantastic that this museum in London has taken some of his work and put it out there for the world to see.”
Sue Richardson, Wilson Bentley's great-grand-niece

Hart said the London museum purchased the book, which includes 355 prints, directly from Bentley in 1899 for $17.50.

A photo showing two large white and black images of snowflakes, with many delicate tendrils.
Natural History Museum
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Courtesy
Up-close with two Vermont snowflakes.

While there are other digital versions of Bentley prints online, the Natural History Museum website has direct copies of the book, which include Bentley’s notes from the cold winter days he worked to capture the images.

Hart says the photographs and notes reveal Bentley as a scientist and artist, who worked most of his life on a project, whose only goal was to discover and marvel at the mystery of the universe.

“With people in natural history, you do hear about them, us, having obsessions with some things,” she said. “And I think for him as a young child to find his niche and to find that thing that made him happy, and just the sheer joy of how he wrote in his notebooks, is just a pleasure to read.”

Bentley’s great-grand-niece, Sue Richardson — who still lives in Jericho — says the Natural History Museum archive has the potential of opening up Bentley’s work to a new audience, who can still marvel at the random perfection of a single snowflake.

“He had the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet,” Richardson said. “From the first snow crystal that he ever photographed, it was always about sharing this with the world. So I think it’s fantastic that this museum in London has taken some of his work and put it out there for the world to see.”

Handwriting reading "crystals of western portion of the great storm of Feb. 8, 9, 1895. Temperature 5 below zero, to 3 above zero. Calm."
Natural History Museum
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Courtesy
Some of Wilson Bentley's handwriting describing the conditions of a winter storm in February 1895.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.