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Studying the life of America’s first snowflake photographer, Wilson Bentley, affords ample homeschool science, math, art and history connections. Check out my free Wilson Bentley, the Snowflake Man Slideshow Lesson, Parts I and II below. Be sure to watch part II of the video below after the first video finishes! Enjoy!
Born during the Victorian era, Wilson Bentley lived from 1865 to 1931. The Victorian era is a very famous time period still intensely studied today. One interesting craze during the Victorian era was for people to arrange and display microscopic things for public entertainment. My, have things changed for entertainment! One such example of photomicrography, is that some people would collect diatoms, or microscopic jewel-like algae, and arrange them in geometric fashion on a microscope slide. See the image below. This practice is very rarely done today and takes immense skill and patience. But one famous modern day diatomist, Klaus Kemp, has created such intricate diatomic works of art that just blows my mind.
Below we can see Wilson Bentley with his famed bellows camera and his microscope hooked right up to that camera. Pretty awesome, huh?
Wilson Bentley was born in Jericho, Vermont. Where else have we heard of the name Jericho before? It was a famed city in the Bible right? Many towns in the United States are named after cities and towns from Israel. As a geography connection, have your learners locate Jericho Vermont on a map.
Bentley was one of the first known snowflake photographers who perfected the technique. He would catch unmelted flakes on frozen black velvet. It was very important that the surface in which he captured his snowflakes were as cold as the outdoors. He made his first successful capture of a snow crystal and photograph of it when he was 19 years old. He had been studying snow crystals since he was teen. It's not too too early for any youth to start studying snow crystals if they want to get into snow science. Indeed, it's a very specific science.
Snow crystal study belongs to both meteorology, the study of weather and its forms, and hydrology, the study of water and its forms. At age 15, Wilson’s mother gave him a microscope. Wilson attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope to photograph snowflakes. On January 15, 1885, after much trial and error, he photographed his first snow crystal. During his lifetime, he actually created over 5,000 snow images such as this one he photographed below.
How did he catch the snowflakes? Each crystal was caught on a blackboard or black velvet and then he would transfer the crystal with a turkey feather to a microscope slide.
How to Capture Snowflakes like Wilson Bentley - Experiment
- Black velvet
- Magnifying glass
- Long bird feather. Hint: Try looking around your backyard or neighborhood or purchase some bird feathers at your nearest craft store. If you can't find any bird feathers, use a tiny paint brush.
- Student journals
As an experiment, acquire black velvet and a bird's feather. Before your next snowfall (if you get snow in your region), place the turkey feather and velvet outdoors in a box, for several hours or overnight. Have your learners dress up warm and capture falling snow on the black velvet. Manipulate the snowflakes on the velvet. Observe them from an outdoor overhang so you can duck in and out of it to prevent the snow from burying your observable flakes. Have your learners make sketches and geometric descriptions in their journals of what they observe.
Wilson Bentley's Accomplishments
He was known for saying that snowflakes “are tiny miracles of beauty.” He also called snowflakes “ice flowers.” At the end of the nineteenth century his work actually gained public attention from Henry Crocker of Fairfax the Vermont magazine. Crocker actually inherited Bentley's largest private photography collection. He wrote an article about how no two snowflakes are alike. It's not technically true as there have been some identical snow crystals found. There always seems to be rare exceptions in nature. For the most part, there are no two snowflakes alike.
He wrote articles for magazines such as the National Geographic, Nature, Popular science and Scientific American. He published an entry about snow for the 14th edition Encyclopedia Britannica.
Wilson didn’t just photograph snowflakes, He also photographed various ice and natural water formations including clouds and fog. He was enthralled with studying many aspects of meteorology.Public interest grew in snowflake uniqueness through his photographs and his articles. Wilson’s magazine publications are the equivalent of how we do blogging and put up YouTube videos today. I bet Wilson would have been a great YouTuber. In 1931 he published a book called Snow Crystals. That book was where I first got introduced to Snowflake Bentley.
When I began my own snow crystal study back in 2003, I checked out his book, Snow Crystals, from the University of Delaware. It’s illustrated with 2,500 of his remarkable snowflake photographs. I was so amazed with his pictures that I just had to share it with my students. I brought the book to my 4th and 5th graders I was teaching at the time in private school. I showed the pictures to my students and they too were in awe. His photographs inspired us to go deeper in our study and together we learned to catch snowflakes similarly how Bentley did. However, we didn’t have the technology to photograph them from the microscope slides. Although, I’ve had one student of mine who took my MathArt classes back in 2016, photograph his slides by pointing his mother’s cell phone camera eye right into the microscope and it worked!
How My Students and I Captured and Studied Real Snowflakes
That same winter in 2003, I found out from books how to capture, preserve and view snow crystals under a microscope. At the time, I had eight moderately powered microscopes for my classroom. During a Maryland winter, from my garage on the weekends, I left a microscope along with some slides and a clear plastic spray. During varying snow showers or storms, I rolled up the garage door, took out a cold microscope slide, went out from the garage into the snow and captured several crystals on each slide. After I collected around 10 flakes, I brought the slide back into the garage and sealed and preserved my snowflake treasures with the plastic spray. I brought these slides to school and my students and I would observe them under the microscope. I had my students make sketches and describe the snowflakes in their MathArt journals. Just before the holiday season, this activity afforded us hours of interactive, hands-on jubilee before school let out for Christmas and New Year’s break.
On December 23rd, 1931, unfortunately, Wilson died of pneumonia at his farm after walking six miles in a blizzard to photograph snowflakes. That's pretty intense showing us just how dedicated he was to his work. Kenneth Libbrecht is today’s most famous modern-day snowflake photographer and physicist at Caltech in California. Kenneth has said that Wilson's techniques for snow photography are mostly the same techniques still used today. However, Kenneth has the luxury of using a fancy high-tech camera hooked up to a microscope. Libbrecht actually operates this setup from the back of his SUV. Libbrecht said that “hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years.”
Jericho Historical Society, in Jericho Vermont, has a collection of Bentleys photographs. His images have been digitized and organized into digital libraries. You can actually buy a DVD of all 5,000 of his snow crystal photographs from his website.
Below are links including many resources to help you get started with a great homeschool snowflake unit study.