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October 2003

Count on Him

How Benjamin Thompson always came up trumps

If one were to speculate on the thoughts that occupied the mind of Count Rumford (formerly Benjamin Thompson) as he lay on his deathbed in 1814, one worry could almost certainly be ruled out: that he had not achieved enough during his lifetime. For having been born into an age when travel was hazardous and endowed with neither money nor an extensive formal education, he accomplished a great deal.

Born on a farm in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753, Benjamin Thompson showed an early aptitude for mathematics, reading and scientific experimentation. Despite his obvious talents however, when Thompson left school aged thirteen there seemed no clear-cut career for him to pursue. At sixteen he was briefly apprenticed to Hopestill Caphen, a Boston merchant, but according to a letter written by Caphen to Thomson’s mother, young Thompson spent more time experimenting with drills, knives and saws than actually working at his job. For a time he attended Professor John Winthrop’s lectures on science at Harvard along with friend and neighbor Loammi Baldwin (regarded by many as America’s first engineer). It was not until his marriage to Sarah Rolf, an extremely wealthy and influential widow—nine years his senior—in 1772 that his life began to take shape. Though he liked to say “she married me, not I her,” Thompson, an ambitious man, clearly saw this as a step up the social ladder. At first the relationship seems to have been a happy one. However, only three years later Thompson, who had sided with the British in the 1775 Siege of Boston—in fact he had been employed as a spy by the British army—was forced to leave his wife and daughter and sail for England. Only thirty years later did he attempt to contact Sarah again and then only because he wished to remarry.

Once in England Thompson worked in the Colonial Office examining the claims of fellow refugees for financial compensation from the British government. At the same time he pursued his explosive hobby of conducting experiments with gunpowder. His scientific career flourished and by the age of 27, he was made a member of the prestigious Royal Society. When in 1782, the American War of Independence ended, the Colonial Office had no further use for Thompson who decided to visit Europe. A fortunate encounter with Prince Maximilian in Strasbourg enabled him to secure a job working for the Elector of Bavaria, Karl Theodor (1724–1799). In 1783 Thompson was appointed Bavarian Minister of War and set about reforming the army. By offering higher pay, free education to soldiers and their families and by organizing projects to occupy their free time, he managed to raise the army’s low morale. Despite his reputation of having an abrasive personality, he was extremely successful in his work. He even paid the unemployed beggars who crowded the streets of Munich to make uniforms for the ill-clothed army.

Another of his projects, one that keeps him alive in the memory of thankful Munich citizens, was planning the English Garden. The original commission by Karl Theodor was to establish a park for the militia on the site of former hunting grounds just outside Munich, where soldiers could grow their own food in order to save money. However, Thompson favored the idea of a public park and managed to persuade the Elector that this would be a better use for the land. Not content with being a scientific genius, social reformer and urban planner, he also found time to avert a famine by introducing the potato to Bavaria. Turning his hand to cookery, he created a nutritious and inexpensive soup intended to improve the well-being of the army and the poorer strata of the population (Rumfordsuppe), which is still served today. In recognition of his numerous achievements, Sir Benjamin Thompson was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791. He assumed the title of Count Rumford after the New Hampshire town where his career began. A bronze statue of him, commissioned by the king of Bavaria in 1867, stands on Maximilianstrasse as testimony to the gratitude of Munich’s citizens.

Count Rumford returned to England in 1795, where he developed a more accurate theory of heat, then in 1799, moved to Paris. Five years later he repeated the pattern of marrying a wealthy widow—this time of the famous French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier—whom he later became estranged from. He died in Paris in 1814.

Although many historians cite only his primary scientific work on the nature of heat transmission, Thomson invented numerous practical innovations, such as the smokeless chimney, the kitchen oven, a type of thermal underwear, the pressure cooker and central heating, and published papers on a wide range of subjects. In 1796 Count Rumford gave $5,000 to the Royal Society of Great Britain and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to award medals every two years for outstanding scientific research on heat or light. He also established the renowned Rumford Professorship at Harvard. Thanks to Rumford’s resourcefulness and determination, his contributions have made a lasting impact on society and science.

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