"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. I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life."
Though Bentley earned his living as a dairy farmer, he always found time to photograph snow crystals every winter, averaging over one hundred. On March 1, 1931, the last year of his life, he photographed his final snow crystal. That brought his grand total to 5,381! Because they were all different, Bentley coined the well known expression that no two snowflakes are alike.
For Bentley, the snow crystals were not just a cold sliver of ice to be scientifically analyzed. They were also a metaphor for all things beautiful on Earth, from the vivid hues of an evening's sunset to a pretty girl's smile. He once wrote that, "The snow crystals . . . come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky it fades but to come again."
Though Bentley obtained his first snow crystal photographs in 1895, he published nothing about them until 1898 in Appleton's Popular Science Monthly. That opened the floodgates of his creativity. Over the years more than sixty articles appeared, about ten of a technical nature in the Monthly Weather Review, the rest in magazines like The American Annual of Photography, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and The New York Times Magazine.
Bentley was a small man, not much over 5 feet tall, perhaps 125 pounds, but he was muscular, agile, well coordinated, and could easily hold his own with any farmer in the valley in pitching hay or digging a row of potatoes. Though self-educated, his interests roamed over a wide area. He was a good amateur geologist, and for 49 years kept detailed records of the intensity and frequency of the auroras that flashed their ghostly curtains of light over Jericho.
Bentley's life was not one-sided. Music, too, was a part of it. He played the piano and enjoyed entertaining himself and the neighborhood children with the popular songs of the day. He played the clarinet in a marching band he had organized. At town socials he amused people with his violin by imitating birdcalls, frogs, barnyard animals, and certain people in the village!
By the early 1920s, honors came his way. He had been elected to Who's Who in America and had written an article on ice and snow for the Encyclopedia Americana. In 1920, he was one of the first to be elected a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, and in 1924 the Society awarded him its first research grant "in appreciation of his wonderful results in snow and frost crystal photomicrography obtained during 40 years of extremely patient work." In November, 1931, his classic book Snow Crystals was published. It contained nearly 2,500 of his best snow crystal photographs. But Bentley had little time to enjoy this collection of his life's work. He died of pneumonia a few weeks later on December 23. His obituary appeared in many papers but perhaps a single sentence in his obituary in Vermont's Burlington Bee Press best summed up the genius of Wilson Bentley: "He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and understanding to look."
My book The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley was published in 1998 by the McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co.