Wilson A. Bentley: The Man Who Photographed Snowflakes

How do you photograph a snowflake? It’s an easy enough question, but one that throws up a host of problems. For one, how do you capture one single snowflake, without crushing or damaging it? Secondly, how do you keep it from melting long enough to get it in front of a camera lens? And even then, how on earth do you guarantee that you’ll be able to see it in any kind of detail?

Despite all those difficulties, one man not only managed to photograph a snowflake in astonishingly beautiful detail, but he did so more than 100 years ago—and went on to produce such an impressive library of snowflake images that his research is credited with establishing the theory that no two snowflakes are alike.

Wilson Alwyn “Willie” Bentley was born on a small farmstead in Jericho, Vermont, on February 9, 1865. His mother, a former schoolteacher, owned a microscope which she had used in her lessons and which Bentley—who had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge fueled by reading his mother’s entire set of encyclopedias as a child—soon became fascinated by. But alongside the fragments of stones and birds’ feathers that Bentley collected and observed through his microscope, from an early age his curiosity landed on one subject: snowflakes.

Photo of snowflakes by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Working during the winter from a freezing cold room at the back of the family farmhouse, Bentley would collect airborne ice crystals on the microscope’s slide, and quickly work to focus on them before they began to melt or lose their shape. In the early days of his work, he simply recorded the countless different shapes and forms he saw by drawing them as best he could in a notebook. But knowing full well that these rough sketches were no substitute for the astonishing complexity that he saw under his microscope, he soon sought other ways to record what he discovered.

Bentley asked his father for a bellows camera—an early type of still camera, with a pleated, accordion-like body that could be used to alter the distance between the lens and the photographic plate—and with no photographic training himself, attached a microscope lens. What followed was a long and immensely frustrating period of trial and error, with innumerable failed attempts along the way. But finally, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Bentley succeeded in taking a single perfect image. He later wrote:

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! It was the greatest moment of my life.

Bentley is now credited with taking the earliest known photograph of a single snowflake in the history of photography. He was just shy of 20 years old at the time—and he wasn’t done yet.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For more than a decade, he continued to perfect not only his photographic skills, but his snowflake-collecting technique too. Working swiftly (and mainly outside) to avoid the risk of them melting or evaporating, Bentley would collect the snowflakes on a tray, covered with a swatch of black velvet, that he would leave outside during bad weather. Individual snowflakes could then be transferred onto a pre-chilled glass microscope slide using a small wooden peg, where they could be photographed in astonishing detail. Bentley eventually amassed a library of several hundred snowflake images—and as word spread of his work, it soon attracted the attention of scientists at the nearby University of Vermont.

George Henry Perkins, a professor of natural history and the official state geologist of Vermont [PDF], persuaded Bentley to write, with his assistance, an article outlining both his method of photographing snowflakes, and his groundbreaking findings. Although initially reluctant (Bentley was an introverted character, and reportedly believed his modest home-schooling could not possibly have led to him discovering anything that wasn’t already known to science), he eventually agreed, and in May 1898 published A Study of Snow Crystals. In it, Bentley’s writing shows just how passionate he was about his subject:

A careful study of this internal structure not only reveals new and far greater elegance of form than the simple outlines exhibit, but by means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much may be learned of the history of each crystal, and the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloudland. Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!

Several more articles in ever more weighty publications—including Harper’s Monthly, Popular Mechanics, and even National Geographic—followed, and soon Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley’s astonishing research became known nationwide. He began giving talks and lectures on his work all over the country, and slides of his astounding snowflake photographs were sold all across America to schools and colleges, museums, and even jewelers and fashion designers looking for inspiration for their latest creations. And throughout it all, Bentley continued to work.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

But not without controversy. When, in 1892, a German scientist named Gustav Hellmann asked a colleague to photograph snowflakes, the resulting flake photos were nowhere near as gorgeous or symmetrical as Bentley's. Eventually, Hellmann accused Bentley of manipulating his photographs. According to New Scientist [PDF]:

"What is clear is that Bentley gave his white-on-white images a black background by scraping the emulsion off the negatives around the outline of each snowflake. But did he sometimes scrape away asymmetries too? Hellmann claimed he had 'mutilated the outlines,' and Bentley’s defense of his methods is not entirely reassuring. 'A true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.'"

Though their feud raged on for decades, Bentley never changed his methods of photographing snowflakes. And though he expanded his studies during warmer weather to include investigations into the structure and formation of dew, mist, and rainfall—he even proposed radical meteorological theories linking raindrop size to different storm types [PDF] and devised a way to measure the size of raindrops that involved letting them hit a tray containing a layer of sifted flour, then weighing the ball of paste each raindrop produced as it hit—Bentley’s first love always remained the same. Having continued his painstaking research, by the 1920s he had amassed a gallery of more than 5000 snowflake images, some 2400 of which were selected for publication in a book, Snow Crystals, in 1931.

Later that year, however, his work finally got the better of him: After walking six miles home during a blinding blizzard, Bentley caught pneumonia and died at the family home in Jericho on December 23, 1931. He left his extraordinary library of photomicrographs to his brother Charlie, whose daughter donated them to the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York in 1947.

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iStock
Ruined a Photo By Blinking? Facebook Can Fix It With AI
iStock
iStock

Next time you blink in an otherwise flawless photo, don't be so quick to hit the "delete" button on your phone. As The Verge reports, Facebook is testing a new feature that uses artificial intelligence to make closed eyes look naturally open.

Facebook engineers Brian Dolhansky and Cristian Canton Ferrer described the technology behind the AI in a paper published June 18. They used a type of machine learning called generative adversarial network or GAN. It works by looking at a database of pictures and using that information to generate new imagery where there wasn't any before.

This type of AI has been used to design clothing and video game levels in the past. To get it to work with faces, Facebook engineers showed the system photos taken of people when their eyes were open. After "learning" the subject's eye shape, size, and color, the AI used that data to superimpose a new set of eyes over the blinking lids. The feature still has some trouble working with glasses, long bangs, and pictures taken at an angle, but when it does what it's supposed to, it's hard to tell the photo was ever retouched.

Faces with blinking and open eyes.
Facebook

Facebook isn't the first company to use AI to salvage photographs with closed eyes. In 2017, Adobe added an "Open Closed Eyes" feature to Photoshop Elements that also uses AI to generate a pair of eyes that match those of the blinking subject. For it to work, users first have to show the system several photos of the subject with their eyes open.

Facebook, which already holds a database of pictures of many of its users, seems like a perfect fit for this type of technology. The social media site is still testing it out, but based on the success of early experiments, they may consider making it available to users in the not-too-distant future. And because Facebook owns Instagram, it's possible that the eye-opening feature will eventually be applied to Instagram posts and Stories as well.

[h/t The Verge]

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Rylo
Remember Every Moment of Your Next Vacation With this Tiny, 360-Degree Camera
Rylo
Rylo

Kiss those blurry, shaky, amateurish vacation videos goodbye: As spotted by Travel+Leisure, a new 360-degree camera called Rylo captures every angle of the action around you with little effort, and the high-definition footage can be edited directly on your phone.

The camera is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and has two wide-angle lenses that can be used to consolidate your footage into a 360-degree spherical video for when a single shot just won't cut it. Just press the record button, and the device does the rest of the work.

Alternatively, you can select just one angle or section of the footage and create a more traditional video—simply change the camera’s perspective by tapping on specific points of interest in the video. The choice is all yours with the accompanying mobile editing app, built for both Apple and Android phones.

Shaky hand? Fret not—the camera comes equipped with a stabilization feature, so even if you’re mountain biking down a treacherous path, your video won’t look like the sequel to Cloverfield. The aluminum camera is built to withstand the elements, but for an extra level of protection, Rylo makes a water-resistant Adventure Case.

Other nifty features include time-lapse and something called FrontBack, which lets you add a bubble on top of another video in order to show your reaction as the action unfolds in the background. If you’re skydiving and shooting the scenery around you, for instance, you can also show your face in the corner, should you want to capture those embarrassing reactions for posterity.

The camera is available on Amazon for $499. Check out the company's video below to see it in action.

[h/t Travel+Leisure]

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