I’ll never forget the snowflakes I witnessed one night in Iceland while sitting in an outdoor hotpot with friends. They were larger than silver dollars and seemed to last forever like a slow-mo video. We quickly compared intricate shapes on our arms before the crystal art vanished into the warm water. I regret not having a record of those beauties, and I’m not even sure my phone could have captured their image back then. That’s why I’m blown away by a story I found on Watertown Daily Times about the “Snowflake Man”. In the 1800s, Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley fell in love with snowflakes and found a way to capture their beauty, thanks to a microscope he received as a child. Today his images are housed at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, according to the post.
Each glass plate contains a single, perfect snowflake that was caught outdoors in subzero weather, magnified under a microscope, photographed and traced by hand to reveal every detail of its filigreed form.
Although Bentley did not have a science background, he created his own citizen science project, discovering both the method for gathering data and contributing to the science of the atmosphere.
Using a blackboard with wire handles, Bentley would catch several snowflakes, which he examined with a handheld magnifying glass. The best flakes were lifted with a feather onto a glass slide, and placed beneath the microscope’s objective. He lifted the card acting as his shutter and began counting off the desired length of exposure — anywhere between 8 and 100 seconds. To give his images their distinctive black background, Wilson then scraped some of the light-sensitive pigments off the negative, hewing to the outline of the crystal.
He is credited with the first photograph of a snowflake in 1885 and his passion led him to take 5,000 images and later create a classification system that is still used today. I’m still wondering how he managed to store so many images! There’s more to the story, including who was considered a scientist at the time and how the museum was lucky enough to get such an amazing collection. So, I’m encouraging you to check out the original story by Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post. Of course if you would like to get started with your own citizen science project examining tiny phenomena, you should take a look at our fine Aluminum USB Microscope. It comes with a sturdy stand and offers LED illuminated imaging with a 640×480 camera sensor. You can choose between 20x-200x magnification, which you may find handy for soldering projects as well. Have fun seeing all the details and see if you can find a way to turn something you love into helpful citizen science.