Bentley Snow Crystal Collection

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Bentley Snow Crystal Collection
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Collection Facts

Dates of Original:
c. 1900 - 1925; 1947

Historical Context

The Bentley Snow Crystal Collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science is a digital library providing a high-quality collection of stunning, un-retouched images of Wilson A. Bentley's original glass slide photographs of snow crystals, and includes dynamic resources to further an appreciation and understanding of Bentley and his work. In the spirit of Wilson Alwyn Bentley and his commitment to innovation and discovery, the Bentley Snow Crystal Collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science serves as an enriching legacy for all to share in the fascinating product of his life's work carefully observing and recording the intricate, dazzling wonder of snowflakes.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born February 9, 1865, on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. For his 15th birthday, his mother gave him a microscope. Looking at snow crystals through his microscope, Bentley was amazed at their beauty, complexity, and variety. He tried to make detailed drawings of magnified snow crystals, but the snow melted before he could finish. Frustrated but determined to capture the exquisite geometrical intricacies of snow crystals, he decided to try photography. It took Bentley two years of painstaking trial and error, but on January 15, 1885, at the age of 19 years, he made the world's first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. The process he developed was unique and innovative, and when he first shared his images with others, many people, especially scientists and professional photographers, "doubted Bentley's ability and his images'" authenticity. However, over time Bentley was recognized for what he had achieved. His boyhood interest in the snow's microscopic beauty expanded to include a scientific curiosity of snow crystals' structure and development, and he devoted himself to his photography and study of snow and other atmospheric phenomenon.

The fascination for snow that drove his scientific curiosity and photographic innovations led Bentley to record detailed weather observations and notes on his photographic techniques. Bentley filled nine notebooks with 47 years' worth of his observations and analysis, and these records provide useful information about daily weather conditions, and valuable details of his many sessions photographing snow crystals. The breezy, telegraphic style of these journal entries contrast the eloquently passionate language of the many articles he wrote that describe his discoveries and techniques.

In 1898, at the age of 33, he began to publish articles of his findings and images. He published 49 popular and 11 technical articles about snow crystals, frost, dew, and raindrops, including the entry on "snow" in the 14th edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica." Although during his lifetime the scientific community largely ignored his innovative work, he was elected, in 1920, a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. Since his death in 1933, he has achieved a reputation as a pioneering weather scientist and photographer. He lived to see "Snow Crystals," a book of his snow crystals images, published in 1931, but died of pneumonia that same year, after walking home through a blizzard.

As a boy Bentley brought to bear his great curiosity and imagination to the task of sharing with the world the beauty he saw in snowflakes. He went on to become a true pioneer in the field of atmospheric science, as well as an innovative, talented photographer with an artist's eye.

The Buffalo Museum of Science acquired Wilson A. Bentley's collection of glass plate slides and journals in the winter of 1947 after being contacted by Bentley's niece Mrs. Alice Hamalainen. Mrs. Hamalainen had come into possession of the slides upon her father's death, and in the fall of 1947 sent a letter to the Buffalo Museum of Science inquiring as to whether the Museum had interest in acquiring the collection. She wrote that she had been offered $500 from a private individual, but hoped instead to see her uncle's work preserved in a museum. During his lifetime Wilson A. Bentley had been connected to the Buffalo Museum of Science through his appearance at the Hayes Friday Evening Lecture platform in December of 1922 and through his article "Snowflakes, Nature's Wonder Gems," published in the museum's
"Hobbies" in January of 1929.

Cataloging and Digitizing of the Collection

Due to the extremely delicate nature of glass plate negatives, access to this valuable resource had until recently been very limited. In 2004, through partnership with Dr. June Abbas and graduate students from the University at Buffalo's Department of Library and Information Science, a digital library of this collection was created. In addition to digitizing Bentley's slides and notebooks, the project also included linking each glass plate slide with the meteorological observations recorded by Bentley at the time of image creation. This
project has greatly increased accessibility to the collection while helping to permanently preserve this delicate collection.

The Wilson A. Bentley Snow Crystal Collection is an important resource for all who seek inspiring examples of the artistry of snow crystals and knowledge of the science behind snow crystal formation.

Scope of Collection

The collection includes hundreds of glass plate negatives depicting snow crystals, clouds, and nature scenes taken by Wilson A. Bentley. Also included are his field notebooks, Museum acquisition documents and articles about the collection in "Hobbies," the Museum’s magazine.