Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Snowflake Bentley

Wilson Bentley was born February 9, 1865 on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. Jericho is in the heart of the "snowbelt" and has an annual snowfall total of around 120 inches. What a wonderful place to grow up if you love snow!

Willie Bentley liked to net the butterflies that flittered and fluttered around his farm and show them to his older brother, Charlie. He liked to pick the apple blossoms that dotted the apple trees in the pastures and give them to his Mother. But he loved snow more than anything else in the whole world. He loved to see snowflakes on his mittens and on the barn doors but he couldn't share them with anyone. He couldn't save them before they melted.

Willie's Mother was his teacher until he was fourteen years old. She had a set of encyclopedias in their house and he read all of them! She gave him an old microscope and he used it to look closely and carefully at all of the amazing things you can find on a farm - like flowers, raindrops, and blades of grass. Of course, the things he loved to look at most of all were snowflakes. Other children used snow to make snowballs and build snowforts, but Willie caught single snowflakes and studied them.

Willie found that snowflakes were beautiful icy crystals and that no two snowflakes that he studied were ever alike. He decided to try and draw pictures of snowflakes so he could share their beauty with his community. Starting at age fifteen, he tried to draw one hundred snowflakes each winter for three winters. They always melted before he could finish drawing them.

One day, Willie read an article in a magazine about a camera with its own microscope inside of it. He shared the news with his Mother and Father and told them that he could photograph snowflakes he he had that camera. When he was seventeen years old, his parents spent their savings on the camera and gave it to Willie. They knew he wanted with all of his heart to share what he had seen of snowflakes.

The camera cost as much as his Father's herd of ten cows, but it could magnify a smowflake to 3,600 times its actual size. During the first winter with his camera, all of his attempts to photograph snowflakes were failures. He worked through each and every snowfall but his pictures were only shadows. As winter melted into spring he had no good picture of a snowflake. He waited patiently for the next winter to bring new snow and new possibilities to photograph snowflakes and, when the snowfall began, he tried a new experiment. He used a very small lens opening, which let only a little light reach the negative, but he kept the lens open for up to a minute and a half. It worked! Willie had discovered how to photograph snowflakes! Now he could share their beauty with everyone.

- "My photographs of snowflakes will be my gift to the world," said Willie.

- "Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt," laughed his neighbors. "We don't need pictures."

While other farmers with horse and sleigh passed him by, Willie stood by the barn and caught snowflakes on an old black tray. He learned that each snowflake begins as a speck, much too tiny to be seen. Little bits - molecules - of water attach to the speck to form its branches. As the crystal grows, the branches come together and trap small quantities of air. Many things affect the way these crystal branches grow. A little more cold, a bit less wind, or a bit more moisture will mean different shaped branches. Willie realized that was why, in all his pictures, he never found two snowflakes alike.

The conditions around Willie had to be just right for him to get a good picture of a snowflake. He stood for hours on end in his freezing barn for just the right snowflake. If he looked on his tray and found broken snowflakes, he brushed them gently with a turkey feather and sent them down to the waiting ground. Some winters he was only able to make a few dozen good pictures. The best snowstorm of his life occurred on Valentine's Day in 1928. He made over one hundred photographs during the two day storm.

He came up with creative ways to share his snowflake pictures. He gave them away as gifts for birthdays. He held evening slideshows by using a projector and a sheet hung over a clothesline on the lawns of neighboring farms. He sold them to colleges and universities. He gave them to artists to help inspire their own work. He gave speeches about snow. Magazines published his articles and his photographs. Willie the little farmer came to be known as the world's expert on snow. People called him, "the Snowflake Man."

Willie never grew rich. By 1926 he had spent $15,000 on his work and received $4,000 from the sale of photographs and slides. Other scientists raised enough money to allow him to gather up his best photographs and make them into a book. When he was sixty-six years old his book - his gift to the world - was published. Less than a month after the publication, Willie walked six miles in a blizzard to his farm to take more pictues of snowflakes. He became ill with pneumonia and died.

Jericho, Vermont built a monument for Willie in the. Center of town. The plaque on the monument says - "SNOWFLAKE" BENTLEY: Jericho's world famous snowflake authority.

Snowflake Bentley was a simple farmer and a genius. His words to us are likewise simple yet profound - "I found that snowflakes were masterpieces of design. No design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted...just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.". His life and work reminds up to put our hearts into who we are and what we do, to give ourselves and our work as a gift to the world, to leave a record of beauty that will make the world a more human place for all of us.

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