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About the Bentley Collection

Snow Crystals and Their History

Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931), America's First Cloud Physicist, grew up on a small farm in Vermont and spent most of his life there. Home schooled by his mother, she instilled in him a love of knowledge and fostered his inquisitiveness. Bentley developed a lifelong passion for studying and observing water in all of its forms -- dew, frost, clouds, rain, and snowflakes. He graduated from observing and drawing snowflakes to taking photographs through a microscope, obtaining the first photomicrograph ever taken of an ice crystal on January 15, 1885. (A snowflake is usually composed of many ice crystals that collide and stick together as they fall. But with persistence one can find and isolate individual ice crystals.) He obtained thousands of photomicrographs of individual ice crystals over the course of his lifetime. (Blanchard,1970)

Bentley wrote and published numerous articles about his work with ice crystals, many of them containing ideas ahead of meteorological thinking of the day. He was deeply saddened by the lack of interest in his work during his lifetime but this did not deter his progress. Scientists ignored Bentley's work -- perhaps because they doubted the value of it coming from a formally uneducated farmer and because his writings revealed his emotions about the beauty of nature in addition to his measurements. Note his comments concerning the structure of an ice crystal:

"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!" (Blanchard, 1970)

In 1931 Dr. William J. Humphreys, Chief Physicist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, sorted through some 4500 of Bentley's photomicrographs (the original negatives and some of his notebooks are housed at the Jericho Historical Society, Vermont) and published 2453 of his pictures -- most of them of ice crystals and about 100 of frost and dew. (Snow Crystals by W.A. Bentley and W.J. Humphreys, McGraw-Hill, 1931, reprinted in its entirety by Dover Publications in 1962.)

Bentley prepared boxes of lantern slides of dew, frost, snow crystals, and clouds and sold them primarily to colleges and universities in the United States. The University of Wisconsin's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences donated their collection to the Schwerdtfeger Library in 2000. Shortly after, the Library obtained partial funding through the Friends of the Libraries, University of Wisconsin-Madison, to preserve the physical collection and provide web access.

(Source: Blanchard, Duncan C., 1970. Wilson Bentley, The Snowflake Man. Weatherwise v.23 (6), pp260-269.)

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Snow Crystal Classification and Cross Reference

The most widely used classification for solid precipitation was proposed by the International Commission on Snow and Ice in 1951. Most snow crystals found in nature will fit into one of the seven main categories: plates, stellar crystals, columns, needles, spatial dendrites, capped columns, and irregular forms. However, there are many variations within categories which are not separately identified by the International Snow Classification.We decided to use the Magono and Lee (1966) snow crystal classification scheme for the Bentley project because it offered some useful distinctions between crystal types. We classified each crystal using this scheme. Should you discover any discrepancies please contact us. (Source: LaChapelle, Edward R. Field Guide to Snow Crystals. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1969).

The images in the database are cross-referenced to those contained on the Jericho Historical Society's CD-ROM, Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley Digital Archives and to those contained in the Dover book, Snow Crystals (1962). Using the CD-ROM and the text as "catalogs" to our collection, we documented duplicate images in the image record. About 54% of the images in the Schwerdtfeger Library's Bentley collection are duplicated in either the Jericho or Dover publications. This collection is uniquely searchable by classification, keyword in classification, and browseable.

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Other Snow Resources

Bentley, W.A. and Humphreys, W.J. Snow crystals. New York, Dover Publications, 1962 (..."unabridged and unaltered republication of the work first published by the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. in 1931)

Blanchard, Duncan C. The snowflake man: A biography of Wilson A. Bentley. Blacksburg, VA, McDonald & Woodward Pub., 1998.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998. (childrens' book)

LaChapelle, Edward R. Field guide to snow crystals. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1969.

All About Snow, everything about snow brought to you by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC): Q&A, Interesting facts, snow terminology, and snow picture gallery.

Know Snow, produced by the WhyFiles, the site includes: Flakes study flakes (including an applet to grow your own snowflake), Serious about cirrus, Fast, high, cold wind, Beautiful snow, nice ice

Secrets of Crystal Growth information about solution-based crystals using the atomic-force microscope.

Snow Crystals. Created by Kenneth G. Libbrecht, Caltech. Information on the history of the snowflake's discovery and snowflake physics.

Snow Crystals: An exhibit of photomicrographs by Wilson A. Bentley. Created by The Schwerdtfeger Library, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2000.

Snowflake Splendor. Created by Rick Doble. Images of color-enhanced Bentley snow crystals.

Wilson A. Bentley, Photographer of Snow Crystals. Created by the Jericho Historical Society. Short biography of Wilson A. Bentley and links to some of Bentley's photomicrographs plus articles, books, links to snow resources.

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