Say Freeze! Capturing the Microcosm

“Snow crystals exhibit such a bewildering diversity and beauty.” 

Snowflake Bentley

Have you ever wondered how we know that every single snowflake has a completely unique one-of-a-kind design? You can thank photomicrography — the art taking magnified pictures with a microscope — and the pioneering work of Snowflake Bentley. 

Photomicrography began in the mid-1800s, soon after the invention of photography. Before this development, scientists and observers would have to sketch their findings while peering down at their slides. The earliest microscope photographs were chemically imprinted onto metal or glass plates known as lantern slides. Technology soon evolved to be able to hook a camera up to a microscope and produce pictures through film. When photography became digital, capturing a microscopic image became as easy as holding your smartphone camera onto the eyepiece.  

Microscope at Invisible World of Water exhibit

Wilson A. Bentley (1865 – 1931) was the first known person to photograph a single tiny snow crystal in 1885. Using a tray of black velvet, a feather and an expensive, innovative microscopic camera that produced images on lantern slides, he developed a particular method to capture these ‘ice flower’ photographs; of course, after much trial and error.  

Bentley’s biggest difficulty wasn’t the technology, however; it was the temperature. Snowflakes are frozen ice crystals formed high in the atmosphere on motes of dust and will easily sublimate — in other words, when a solid form skips the water stage and directly transforms into a gas. Bentley writes, “Usually several crystals are placed together on a single slide, a momentary glance being given to each, and care taken while doing this not to breathe on the crystals. The utmost haste must be used, for a snow crystal is often exceedingly tiny … even in zero weather, they last but a very few minutes.” When capturing the microscopic, you have to act fast. 

Snowflake Bentley, as he is now known to the world, would go on to photograph over 5,000 snow crystals. His dedication to photomicrography and lifelong natural science work advanced the study of meteorology and our understanding of snowflake structures. 

Visit Invisible World of Water at the Academy and witness the fascinating and microscopic beauty of snow crystals, water drops and diatoms — hidden just out of sight.   

5 comments

  1. and, BEFORE HIM, there was the overlooked & undervalued Frances Evalina Knowlton Chickering (1808–1885) whose “Cloud Crystals: A Snow Flake Album” was anonymously published in 1864.

  2. The snowflakes are magnificent. Some look like intricate pieces of lace. I look forward to coming to the exhibit to see the flakes and the diatoms.
    I recall Cricket Roberts counting the diatoms for Dr. Patrick in the 1980’s when I was volunteering at the Academy. I have very fond memories of my weekly visits then.

    1. From the American Antiquarian Society: AAS: “Art and nature unite in this perfect winter holiday gift book: an ode to the snowflake. Its lithographic reproductions of various snowflake forms also make it a minor tour-de-force of American printing. Cloud Crystals was one of the first books devoted entirely to snowflakes and its compiler Frances Chickering’s cut-out method became the accepted way to depict them until later in the nineteenth century. (William Bently, who was not even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes when Chickering’s book was first published, famously began using photography to examine ice crystals in 1885.) Chickering’s introduction describes her initial impulse and the process she used to capture her images. “The present collection originated in the accidental observation of the beauty of a snow crystal upon a dark window sill.” Over the course of several long Maine winters, this minister’s wife recorded more than 200 forms of snowflakes using the following method: “The crystals are caught upon dark fur or cloth, a strong magnifier placed over them to assist the eye, and the figure immediately cut from memory.” Later, lithographic plates were produced by J. F. Richardson (also from Portland, Maine) and were uniformly printed as seven white flakes on a maroon ink background. The graphic contrast of maroon and white makes the intricate snowflake shapes pop off the page. In the accompanying text, Mrs. Chickering describes the meteorological conditions present when she observed various snowflakes. Her anthology includes scientific essays alongside literary selections and poetry from a veritable who’s who of the 19th century literary canon: Shakespeare, John Ruskin, William Cullen Bryant; John Greenleaf Whittier; Increase Mather, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A half-fanciful and half-scientific volume, Cloud Crystals makes a truly unique gift book. The copy at the American Antiquarian Society is unique because it has a letter tipped in from Chickering’s husband presenting this volume to the Portland Society of Natural History; in it, he suggests that papers earlier given at the society “had some share in preparing for the book itself.” Ellen Dunlap: “Frances Elvina Knowlton was born 24 Nov 1808 in Phillipston (Worcester County, MA), daughter of Deacon Joseph Knowlton (1760-1839) and his wife Relief Stratton (1774-1860). She was married on 9 Nov 1830 in Phllipston to John White Chickering (born 19 Mar 1808 in Woburn, son of Reverend Joseph Chickering, who was the minister in Phillipston from 1822-1835). John White Chickering was very well known and widely published. “He graduated at Middlebury College in the class of 1826. He was ordained pastor of the High Street Congregational Church at Portland, Maine, and rounded out a very useful and successful pastorate of thirty years in that parish. He was for many years secretary of the Massachusetts Temperance Society, and a strong and potent influence in the temperance movement all his life. He received the degree of D.D. from his alma mater.” In Portland, he was active in the Portland Society of Natural History. In 1865, when he resigned from the Portland church, the members gave him $10,000 in securities. Frances died 30 May 1885 of pneumonia at Wakefield, MA. She is buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Portland, as is her husband who died in 1888.
      In the 1850 US census John and Frances were living in Portland, Maine. Same in 1860 US census. In the 1865 state census they are listed in Boston. And by 1870 US census they were in Wakefield, Mass. Same in 1880 US census.
      Their children were

      John White (1831-1893) (see below)

      Frances Electa (sic) (1834-1836)

      Mary Gertrude (1841-1842)

      Joseph Knowlton (1846-

      Here’s some info about her eldest son…

      John White Chickering, educator, was born at Bolton, Mass., Sept. 11, 1831; son of John White and Frances E. (Knowlton) Chickering. His paternal ancestors for five generations were clergymen. He attended the public schools of Portland, Me., was graduated at Bowdoin college in 1852; was occupied in teaching school and in editing until 1858, and was graduated at the Bangor theological seminary in 1860. He was pastor of the Congregational church, Springfield, Vt., 1860-63; secretary of the Vermont Bible society, 1863-65, and pastor at Exeter, N.H., 1865-70, resigning this charge to accept the chair of natural science at Gallaudet college, Washington, D. C. He was elected a member of the American association for the advancement of science, and of the anthropological, biological, philosophical and geographical societies of Washington, and of the Appalachian mountain club.” Thomas Wilson Lawson: Amazon: “Thomas William Lawson (1857-1925) was an American businessman and author. A highly controversial Boston stock promoter, he is known for both his efforts to promote reforms in the stock markets and the fortune he amassed for himself through highly dubious stock manipulations. He is also famous for his namesake ship, the Thomas W. Lawson, the only seven-masted schooner ever built. As an odd coincidence, Lawson wrote the novel Friday, the Thirteenth (1907) in which a broker picks that day on which to bring down Wall Street; the schooner Thomas W. Lawson was also wrecked on Friday 13th, 1907. Lawson authored numerous books, the most famous of which was Frenzied Finance: The Crime of Amalgamated (1905), his controversial account of the formation of the Amalgamated Copper Company. Although Thomas Lawson was once a multimillionaire, he died poor.”

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