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.

10 Illuminating Online Courses You Can Take in August

fizkes/iStock via Getty Images
fizkes/iStock via Getty Images

Back-to-school season isn't just for full-time students. August can be a great time to return to class for anyone with internet access and a hankering to learn something new. And in the age of online courses, your choices are no longer limited by classroom capacity, scheduling conflicts, or even tuition restrictions. Take a look below at the top 10 coolest course offerings for this month, from classes on mastering mindfulness to making macarons.

1. Hollywood: History, Industry, Art

Hollywood’s history is just as rich as its A-list actors. In this course presented by the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll learn about how the film industry evolved with technology and how it responded to American political crises throughout the 20th century. You’ll also study individual powerhouse studios like Paramount and Disney and legendary directors like George Lucas and Spike Lee.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

2. Our Earth’s Future

If you’re not totally clear on what climate change means, and you feel like at this point it’s too late to ask, you’re not alone—and this course from the American Museum of Natural History is perfect for you. In it, you’ll hear from climatologists, anthropologists, Earth scientists, and others who will explain just how climate change affects us and our ways of life. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to summarize key principles, identify misconceptions, and be well-informed enough to partake in global and local discussions.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

3. Photography Basics and Beyond: From Smartphone to DSLR Specialization

Learning how to snap a great photo is relevant to basically anybody with a smartphone and/or a social media account. That’s all you need for this course—a smartphone and an interest in understanding the fundamental principles of photography (though you can use an actual camera if you’d rather). Delve into composition, exposure, documentary elements, and more, and walk away after this class flaunting a final project of photographs you'll be eager to share on Instagram and beyond.

Sign up on Coursera for free with a seven-day trial. After that, access to the course is $49 per month.

4. Introduction to Classical Music

In this Yale course, you’ll learn about more than just the major players in classical music—you’ll also explore what music actually is, why it makes us feel such strong emotions, and how it’s made. You’ll waltz through an in-depth history of the evolution of classical music, which, of course, wasn’t always considered “classical.” By the end, you’ll have an extensive understanding of music that enriches your daily listening, be it Jonas Kaufmann or the Jonas Brothers.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

5. De-Mystifying Mindfulness

In our fast-paced, uber-digital society, mindfulness has helped a lot of people stay grounded in the face of anxiety or stress, and it could probably help you, too. This free course will provide background on the psychology, philosophy, and politics of mindfulness, as well as teaching you the tools you need to harness its power to improve your own state of mind in a concrete, lasting way.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $30.

6. Miniature French Desserts: Macarons, Madeleines, and More

Even though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing chocolate chip cookies to every bake sale and potluck dinner you attend for the rest of your life, at some point, you might want to steal the show with a melt-in-your-mouth macaron. In this course, former Le Cordon Bleu instructor Colette Christian will lead you through every intricate step of baking formidable French delicacies including macarons, madeleines, tartlets, and opera cakes.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

7. Natural Dog Nutrition and Well-Being

Pet obesity is a national issue, and it contributes to a whole horrible host of other health problems for our four-legged friends. Since dogs can’t learn the risks and make lifestyle changes on their own, it’s on us to help them. This course will teach you how to ensure that your beloved sidekick is getting all the nutrition they need to live a longer, happier life with you. Lesson highlights include: The Truth About Commercial Dog Food, Healthy Homemade Treats, Hidden Household Hazards, and Foods for Common Health Issues.

Sign up on Udemy for $38.

8. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Cyber Security

Learning how cyber security professionals combat hacking attempts—and how hackers hack in the first place—is a great way not only to insulate yourself from hacks, but also to prevent yourself from living in fear that you might get hacked. This 4.5-star-rated course breaks down popular hacking attacks and forms of malware, and it also teaches you about protection technologies like antiviruses, firewalls, encryption, biometrics, authentication methods, and more.

Sign up on Udemy for $25.

9. The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture

Avengers: Endgame’s recent record-setting box office performance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our cultural obsession with superheroes. The late Stan Lee hosts parts of this Smithsonian course in conjunction with other experts, tackling subjects like the inception of superheroes in 1938 and their World War II “Golden Age,” the near-shutdown of the comic book industry during the McCarthy Era, the genre’s ebb and flow over the decades, and so much more.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $50.

10. Hand Lettering for Beginners

Whether you’re hoping to become the go-to sign-maker for all future bridal and baby showers or just looking for a bona fide way to relieve stress, hand-lettering can be a rewarding and practical skill. In this course, instructor and designer Adam Vicarel will show you how to break down a complicated-looking finished piece into a set of simple steps, using materials you probably already have around your house.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Turn Your Phone Into an Instant Camera With KODAK's New Handheld Printer

KODAK
KODAK

Instant cameras are all the rage, but when you're already carrying a high-end camera everywhere you go in the form of your smartphone, the idea of carrying around an extra gadget might seem like more work than it's worth. You don't have to choose between the convenience of your phone's camera and the fun of having a tangible memento. KODAK's new SMILE digital printer combines all the fun of using filters and image editing on your phone with the delight of having a printed copy of your photo.

Blue, green, black, red, and white KODAK SMILE printers printing photos
The KODAK SMILE line of instant digital printers
KODAK

The handheld Bluetooth printer—which is roughly the same size as KODAK's SMILE instant digital camera—lets you edit photos on your phone, then print your image instantly on 2-inch-by-3-inch sticker paper. Using the KODAK SMILE app, you can add Instagram-esque filters; rotate images and change contrast, brightness, and other characteristics; and add stickers, text, doodles, and borders.

Most uniquely, you can add augmented reality elements to your photos, so that when you (or someone else with the KODAK SMILE app) point the app at the physical print, the image is replaced by a short video clip. The effect is something like the moving photographs in Harry Potter—you can surprise your friends by asking them to view a photo through the app's AR function, then watch their delight as the still image begins to move.

The KODAK SMILE app
KODAK

KODAK sent Mental Floss both the SMILE instant camera and the SMILE printer to test, and while there's a lot of fun in snapping photos on an instant camera and accepting whatever weird flaws that photo might have (though you can do some light editing on the SMILE camera before printing), in our opinion, the breadth of image-editing features and convenience of being able to print photos you've already taken on your smartphone makes the digital printer the better option if you're trying to choose between the two.

This is especially true if you're going on vacation or trying to capture a night out on camera; it's just easier to whip out your phone rather than break out another camera, and it's easier to edit photos on your phone than to manipulate photos on the SMILE instant camera's small screen.

Blue, black, green, white, and red KODAK SMILE instant-print cameras
The KODAK SMILE line of instant-print digital cameras
KODAK

The SMILE printer is available on Amazon and Walmart for $100 and comes in five different colors: white, black, blue, green, and red. The SMILE instant-print digital camera is also $100 on Amazon and Walmart and is available in the same colors.

While the camera and the printer both come with a starter pack of sticker-backed ZINK photo paper, you can get 50 refill sheets for $24 when you run out.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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