Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thompson, Benjamin (1754-1814)

For works with similar titles, see Benjamin Thompson.

THOMPSON, Sir BENJAMIN, Count von Rumford (1753–1814), born at North Woburn, Massachusetts, on 26 March 1753, was the only son of Benjamin Thompson (d. 1754) by his wife, Ruth Simonds, daughter of an officer who fought against the French and Indians through the seven years' war. A paternal ancestor, James Thompson, accompanied John Winthrop to New England in 1630. Thompson lost his father at the age of twenty months. His mother married again when he was three years old. His grandfather, who died in 1755, had made provision for his maintenance, and his stepfather exacted the weekly payment of 2s. 6d. till the boy was seven.

He was educated first at the school of his native village; secondly, at that of Byfield; and thirdly, at that of Medford. It is said (G. E. Ellis, Memoir, p. 15) ‘that he showed a particular ardour for arithmetic and mathematics, and it was remembered of him, afterwards, that his playtime, and some of his proper worktime, had been given to ingenious mechanical contrivances, soon leading to a curious interest in the principles of mechanics and natural philosophy.’

When fourteen he was apprenticed to John Appleton of Salem, who kept a large ‘store,’ remaining there ‘till about October 1769.’ He busied himself with experiments for the discovery of perpetual motion and the preparation of fireworks. An unforeseen explosion jeopardised his life. In 1769 he entered the employment of Hopestill Capen of Boston. His spare time was devoted to learning French and to fencing. He attended lectures at Harvard University, and acquired some knowledge of surgery and medicine. The disputes between the colonies and the motherland having brought commerce to a standstill, he became a schoolmaster, first at Wilmington in Massachusetts, and afterwards at Rumford (subsequently renamed Concord) in New Hampshire. Being handsome in feature and figure, and about six feet in height, he found favour in the eyes of Sarah (1739–1792), daughter of the Rev. Timothy Walker of Rumford, and widow of Colonel Benjamin Rolfe (d. 1771), the squire of Rumford. The lady had one child (afterwards Colonel Paul Rolfe) and a competence. Rumford married her in January 1773; he was under twenty and she was thirty-three. Their only child, Sarah, was born on 18 Oct. 1774. Wentworth, the governor of New Hampshire, gave him a commission as major in the second provincial regiment, greatly to the dissatisfaction of the junior officers. He now devoted his leisure hours to experiments in gunpowder and to farming the land acquired by marriage.

In 1775 he was cast into prison for lukewarmness in the cause of liberty, and was released, without being acquitted, after the committee of safety had failed to prove his guilt. He then converted his property into cash, embarked on the frigate Scarborough at Newport, and was landed at Boston, where he remained till the capitulation, sailing for England in the frigate bearing despatches from General Gage to Lord George Germain [q. v.], secretary of state. Lord George appointed Thompson secretary for Georgia, a barren honour, and to a place of profit in the colonial office. He again occupied himself with experiments in gunpowder; he determined the velocity of projectiles while advantageously altering their form, and he succeeded in getting bayonets added to the fusees or carabines of the horse-guards for use when fighting on foot. A paper on the cohesion of bodies which he sent to the Royal Society led to the formation of an acquaintance with Sir Joseph Banks, and to his election as a fellow on 22 April 1779. In the same year he made a cruise as a volunteer in the Victory belonging to the squadron under Sir Charles Hardy, when he studied the firing of guns, and obtained ‘much new light relative to the action of fired gunpowder.’

In September 1780 he was appointed under-secretary for the colonies, an office which he held for thirteen months, during which, as Cuvier stated on Thompson's authority (Memoir, p. 121), ‘he had been disgusted with the want of talent displayed by his principal [Lord George Germain], for which he had himself not unfrequently been made responsible.’ Lord George appointed Thompson lieutenant-colonel of the king's American dragoons after Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown; and, though he did some skirmishing at Charleston before its evacuation, his career in America as a soldier was uneventful. He went with his regiment from Charleston to Long Island, where he remained at Huntingdon till peace was concluded. The historians of Long Island denounce him for having acted as a barbarian in pulling down a presbyterian church and using the materials for building a fort in the public burying-ground (Thompson, Hist. of Long Island, i. 211, 478; Prime, Hist. of Long Island, pp. 65–6, 251).

Returning to England, he retired from the army on half-pay, and went abroad on 17 Sept. 1783, one of his fellow-passengers between Dover and Boulogne being Gibbon (Gibbon, Letters, ii. 72). Thompson journeyed to Strassburg, was present in uniform at a review, and formed the acquaintance of Duke Maximilian, the general in command, and was introduced by him to his uncle, the elector of Bavaria, into whose service he afterwards entered. George III not only gave Thompson the requisite permission, but knighted him on 23 Feb. 1784, shortly before his departure for Bavaria. He returned to England in October 1795 with the title of Count von Rumford. During the eleven years he passed in Munich he had made important reforms in the public service and in social economy. As minister of war he increased the pay and comfort of the private soldier; as head of the police he freed the city from the plague of beggars. A large piece of waste ground belonging to the elector he converted, with the elector's sanction, into a public park having a circumference of six miles. This is now known as the English Garden. When he left in 1795 the citizens of Munich erected a monument in it as a token of their gratitude.

In the spring of 1796 he went to Ireland as the guest of Lord Pelham, and while in Dublin he introduced improvements into the hospitals and workhouses. He left behind him a collection of models of his inventions. He was elected a member of the Irish Royal Academy and Society of Arts, and he received formal thanks from the grand jury and lord mayor of Dublin, and from the lord-lieutenant. In London he effected great improvements in the Foundling Hospital (Ann. Reg. 1798, p. 397). The cooking of food, and the warming of houses economically, occupied his thoughts, as well as smoky chimneys, five hundred of which he claimed to have cured. He made the first experiment at Lord Palmerston's house in Hanover Square, and the houses of other noblemen were afterwards freed from smoke.

Like his countryman Franklin, the aim of Rumford as an inventor was to promote comfort at the fireside, the main object of his life being, in Tyndall's words, ‘the practical management of fire and the economy of fuel’ (New Fragments, p. 168). Yet he made as valuable contributions to pure science as Franklin's in the domain of electricity. When a cannon was bored at Munich he noticed the amount of heat developed, and he succeeded in boiling water by the process. He answered the question ‘What is heat?’ by the statement that it cannot be other than ‘motion.’ Succeeding investigators confirmed his conclusion, and to him pertains the honour of having first determined that ‘heat is a mode of motion’ and of annihilating, as Tyndall says, ‘the material theory of heat.’ M. Berthollet, one of Rumford's eminent contemporaries, contested his theory of heat, and maintained the hypothesis of caloric in his ‘Essai de Statique Chimique,’ published in 1803, to which Rumford made a convincing reply (Rumford, Works, iii. 214, 221). Tyndall likewise gave Rumford the credit of travelling with Sir John Leslie [q. v.] over common ground on the subject of radiant heat and of anticipating Thomas Graham (1805–1869) [q. v.] in experimenting on the diffusion of liquids (New Fragments, pp. 163, 166), and also ‘for the first accurate determinations of the caloric power of fuel’ (Heat a Mode of Motion, p. 145). An interesting summary of Rumford's numerous practical suggestions touching cookery, clothing, and fuel-economy, as well as of his scientific discoveries, appears in the Royal Institution ‘Proceedings’ (vi. 227), 24 Feb. 1871.

In 1796 he presented 1,000l. to the Royal Society on condition that the interest should be devoted to the purchase of a gold and silver medal for presentation every second year to the discoverer during the preceding two years of any useful improvement or application in light and heat. The first award was made in 1802, the result of a ballot being a unanimous vote that both the gold and silver medal should be conferred on Rumford. He made a like donation, under similar conditions, in 1796 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Up to 1829 no candidates deserving one of these medals had appeared in America, and the trustees of the fund obtained an act from the Massachusetts legislature authorising the payment of a lecturer on the subjects in which Rumford was interested, the fund itself having increased in seventy years from five to twenty-five thousand dollars. In 1798 he gave two thousand dollars to Concord in New Hampshire, formerly Rumford, the interest to be used in clothing twelve poor children yearly, and the gift was accepted with the proviso that the girls should be educated as well as clothed.

He returned to Munich in 1796 with his daughter, who had joined him in England. Two years later he was in London as minister for Bavaria, but the king declined to receive one of his own subjects in that capacity. John Adams, president of the United States, gave Rumford the choice of the offices of lieutenant and inspector of artillery or engineer and superintendent of the military academy (Life and Works of Adams, viii. 660). He declined, but presented the model of a new field-piece as a personal acknowledgment of the compliment.

The most important of his works was founding the Royal Institution of Great Britain in Albemarle Street, London. In the ‘Proposals’ (London, 1799, 8vo) which he drafted its objects were stated to be twofold, the first being the diffusion of the knowledge of new improvements, the second ‘teaching the application of science to the useful purposes of life.’ Subscriptions were collected, and a charter obtained in 1799. Rumford became secretary and took up his residence in Albemarle Street, superintending the ‘Journal’ until he left for Bavaria in May 1802. He designed the lecture-room, and his sketches belong to the Royal Institute of British Architects. Thomas Young [q. v.] and Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.] were among the Institution's earliest professors, and to the latter's energy was due the success of Rumford's design (Bence Jones, The Royal Institution, pp. 121, 123). On 24 Oct. 1805 he married for the second time, his new wife being Marie Anne Pierret Paulze, widow of Lavoisier. They separated by mutual consent on 30 June 1809. Rumford thereupon took an estate at Auteuil near Paris, where he lived till his death on 25 Aug. 1814. He was buried in Auteuil cemetery (now disused). Under the provisions of his will, a professorship of physics was established at Harvard University in 1816, and his philosophical apparatus passed with 1,000l. to the Royal Institution. Cuvier read his ‘éloge’ before the French Institute on 9 Jan. 1815, concluding with the words that Rumford ‘by the happy choice of his subjects as well as by his works had earned for himself both the esteem of the wise and the gratitude of the unfortunate.’ According to Tyndall: ‘The German, French, Spanish, and Italian languages were as familiar to Rumford as English. He played billiards against himself; he was fond of chess, which, however, made his feet like ice and his head like fire. The designs of his inventions were drawn by himself with great skill; but he had no knowledge of painting and sculpture, and but little feeling for them. He had no taste for poetry, but great taste for landscape gardening. In late life his habits were abstemious, and it is said that his strength was in this way so reduced as to render him unable to resist his last illness’ (New Fragments, p. 154).

His heiress and only child (by his first wife), Sarah (1774–1852), known as countess of Rumford, chiefly resided at Concord in New Hampshire after her father's death, and founded there the Rolfe and Rumford asylum for poor motherless girls.

Portraits of Rumford are at Harvard College, Cambridge, U.S.A., and at the Royal Society's rooms in Burlington House, London. From the latter was engraved the head on the society's Rumford medal. Three other portraits (reproduced in George E. Ellis's memoir) were bequeathed by Sarah, countess of Rumford, to a relative, Mr. Joseph B. Walker. Besides the monument in the English garden at Munich, erected in 1795, a bronze statue was set up there in Maximilianstrasse in 1867. The first collected edition of Rumford's works began to appear in London in 1796 as ‘Essays Political, Economical, and Philosophical.’ The fourth and last volume was issued in 1802. A German edition (3 vols.) was published at Weimar in 1797–8; 2nd edit. 4 vols., 1802–5. An American edition (3 vols.) appeared at Boston, 1798–1804. The essays on ‘Food’ and ‘The Management of the Poor’ were reissued separately, the former at Dublin in 1847, and the latter in London in 1851. Of a new and exhaustive edition of Rumford's writings, which was undertaken by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first volume appeared at Boston in 1870, and the memoir by G. E. Ellis, forming the fifth and last volume, at Philadelphia in 1875.

[Life by George E. Ellis in Collective Works, vol. v. (Philadelphia, 1875; Chev. von Bauernfeind, Benjamin Thompson Graf von Rumford, Munich, 1889; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. xi. 443, 8th ser. viii. 293; American Journal of Science (by Cuvier), 1831, xix. 28; Spark's American Biography, new ser. vol. v.; Sabine's American Loyalists; Quincy's Hist. of Harvard, 1840; Heat a Mode of Motion, and New Fragments by Tyndall.]

F. R.