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It bears repeating: No snowflakes alike

Thu., Dec. 25, 2008

About a year ago, I wrote an article on Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, the Jericho, Vt., man who proved more than 120 years ago that “no two snowflakes are alike.” By request, I’m repeating this particular column for several science students (and teachers) in the area.

Bentley, born on Feb. 9, 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, lived his entire life on a small farm in tiny Jericho. For eight years, my wife, Sally, and I lived about 15 miles away from Jericho.

During Wilson’s 50-year-plus career, which began with his 15th birthday when his parents presented him with a microscope, he painstakingly photographed more than 5,300 patterns of snow crystals concluding accurately that “no two snowflakes have ever been identical.”

In 1885, at age 20, Bentley successfully adapted his microscope to a bellows-type camera and soon became the first person in recorded history to photograph a single snow crystal. In fact, in his 66-year lifetime, Wilson collected more photographic negatives of snowflakes than all other observers combined.

As a young boy, Bentley made more than 300 drawings of snow crystals. By the mid-to-late 1880s, he began to document his snowflakes with his camera, often in near subzero weather conditions. These beautiful photos became so popular that “Snowflake” actually sold 200 of them to Tiffany’s in New York City, which used his snow crystal patterns for designing expensive broaches and pendants.

On his farm property, Bentley built a shed for taking his pictures. He collected individual snow crystals on a board painted black in an unheated room. He would lift the flake off the board with a splinter of wood and then place the crystal on a microscope slide. He would lastly photograph the snowflake through the microscope using a 50-second exposure. His photographs also proved that all snowflakes are “hexagonal,” or “six-sided.”

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