Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/July 1908/Count Rumford
THE annals of history do not record many geniuses who, with so little effort, and in so short a period of time, attained the high position occupied by Benjamin Thompson. In England he became colonel in the army, under secretary of state, knight, fellow of the Royal Society, founder of the Royal Institution. In Bavaria, minister of war, major general, count of the Holy Roman Empire; counselor of state, chief of state. In France, member of the Institute of France and lecturer at the Academy of Sciences.
Thompson was born on a farm at Woburn, Mass., in 1753. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother, having but a narrow income, took him from school before he was thirteen years of age and apprenticed him to a merchant at Salem. His thirst for knowledge was even then insatiable, and he found it impossible to apply himself to anything except his favorite subjects of study.
His scientific work began at Salem, where his zeal for experimenting nearly ended his career. Having undertaken to prepare some fireworks for celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act, the ingredients of a mortar exploded, burning his face so seriously that it was thought that his eyesight had been destroyed, but in a few weeks he recovered.
The impending American revolution put a stop to his master's trade, and he thereupon left Salem for Boston where he continued his studies, to which he added medicine, anatomy, French fencing and other accomplishments, meantime supplying himself with necessary funds by teaching school in adjoining New England towns. He allowed himself but seven hours' sleep, the remainder of the twenty-four hours being devoted systematically to reading, study, experiments and exercise.
The American revolutionary period was prolific of great men. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Thompson were produced from a population of less than three millions. It is doubtful whether the vast population of the western hemisphere has since produced one man to rank with these four gifted men.
When nineteen years of age Thompson moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where he continued his profession of teaching. Here he met Mrs. Rolf, a young, attractive and wealthy widow to whom he was soon married. Among the prominent people whose esteem he won was Governor Wentworth, who made him Major of the Second Provincial Regiment. This appointment aroused hostile criticism from Thompson's fellow officers, who could not repress their indignation on learning that a young man, not yet of age and without military knowledge, had been raised above veterans whose long service justly entitled them to advancement. It will be shown presently that this incident prevented Thompson from engaging in the revolutionary struggle and led him to foreign lands where his genius had a wider field for
development, and where he soon became closely associated with the most learned and accomplished men of Europe.In 1774 he left Concord with his wife and infant child and returned to Woburn. Charges were circulated that he was unfriendly to the cause of American liberty, and soon after the battle of Lexington he was arrested, and confined at Woburn. His case was heard by the Town Committee of Correspondence, by whom he was released. The principal evidence presented against him was that he had employed on his farm two British deserters, who, wishing to return to the British army, applied to their employer to secure immunity from punishment. Thompson complied by giving them a letter to General Gage, in which he asked that his efforts in their behalf be not disclosed.
Major Thompson sought to redeem his reputation by entering the continental arm}'. He applied to General Washington, then at Cambridge, for a position in the artillery, but his enemies had preceded him and his services were declined.
Deeming it imprudent to longer remain at home, he left Woburn in October, 1775, boarded a British vessel at Newport, by which he was conveyed to Boston, where he remained until the British evacuation. He then sailed for England bearing despatches to Lord Germaine, announcing the fall of Boston. Altogether Major Thompson was a bearer of bad news, friendless, poor and but twenty-three years of age, yet he so impressed Lord George Germaine with his intelligence, graceful manners and knowledge of American affairs that he was at once taken into his employ. In less than three years from the time of his arrival in London, he was advanced to the position of under secretary of state.
Judge Curwen, arefugee from Salem, Mass., then residing in London, wrote in his journal:
Thompson made a series of experiments to test the cohesive attraction of different liquids, the results of which he communicated to Sir Joseph Banks, as a means of introduction to that eminent naturalist, then president of the Royal Society. This self-introduction was so successful that he was placed in Sir Joseph's intimate circle of friends, and he soon became one of the most active members of the Royal Society.
His activities were prodigious. He made a careful study of military details; advised and procured the adoption of bayonets for the fuses of the Horse Guards for fighting on foot; extended his experiments with gunpowder; determined the proper position for the vent in fire arms; measured the velocity of bullets and cannon shot; determined the rapidity of combustion and pressure of gunpowder; published a pamphlet on naval architecture; made a series of experiments in firing broadsides with the frigates of the Channel Fleet, commanded by his worthy friend Sir Charles Hardy; cultivated the acquaintance of men of station and distinction everywhere; and in addition to all of the above—as under secretary of state—he had the oversight of the details of recruiting, equipping, transporting and victualing, the British forces.When the official news of the surrender of the British forces at Yorktown reached London, Lord George Germaine and his under secretary were obliged to resign, because of the fall of the administration of
Lord North. The friendship of Viscount Sackville secured for Thompson a commission of lieutenant colonel in the British army, and he sailed for New York to command a regiment of cavalry, but contrary winds compelled the ship to enter the harbor of Charleston. S. C, where he remained for several weeks, finally reaching New York in January, 1782. The war soon being at an end, he left for England in the following April, after seeing but little actual service in America.
Having been advanced to the full rank of colonel, and there being no activity in the British army, he determined to add to his fame by volunteering in the service of Austria against the Turks. On receiving permission from the King to visit the continent, he left England, still holding his commission and drawing the half pay of a colonel.
He was now thirty years of age, strikingly handsome, with bright blue eyes, dark auburn hair, nearly six feet in height, athletic, a graceful horseman, a skillful swordsman, spoke French and German, thus possessing all the accomplishments of a veritable Admirable Crichton.
When crossing the Channel his fellow voyager was the historian Gibbon, who, in writing to Lord Sheffield, described his companion as "Secretary, Colonel, Admiral and Philosopher Thompson." On arriving at Strasburg he found a military review in progress, commanded by Prince Maximilian of Bavaria, then field-marshal in the service of France. Thompson had taken several blooded horses with him from England, and he appeared at the parade mounted on one of his English thoroughbreds in the full uniform of a colonel in the dragoons. He at once attracted the attention of the prince, who invited him to dine, and was so delighted with his company that he asked him to pass through Munich, giving him a letter to his uncle, the elector of Bavaria.
Although he spent but five days at Munich, he so captivated the elector that he was earnestly invited to enter his service; but still desiring to engage in military service, he continued his journey to Austria. At Vienna he was presented at court, mingled with the first society, and received the most nattering attention. While still at Vienna he received another pressing invitation from the elector of Bavaria to return to Munich.
Finding that the war with the Turks was at an end, and deciding to accept the elector's offer, he returned to England for the purpose of obtaining the king's permission to serve the elector. In granting his request, George III. conferred on him the title of knighthood.
This soldier of good fortune now entered Bavaria as Sir Benjamin Thompson, soon to be privy counselor of state to the elector. Only twelve years had elapsed since he had taught school in small New England towns, and only fifteen-years since he stood in the streets of Boston selling fire wood that he had cut with his own hands and hauled to town. On his arrival in Munich, his energy and enterprise were allowed full scope. He at once began reforms in the army by improving the arms, clothing and sleeping quarters of the troops. For the production of supplies he established military workshops, employing soldiers that had before been idle. The subject of idleness and pauperism engrossed his attention, and he addressed himself to the solution of their causes and the remedy. Schools were established in all the regiments for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. The soldiers, their children and the peasants were taught gratuitously. As a result, ignorant, idle soldiers became intelligent laborers, proud of their work.
Thompson was the inventor of our modern system of charity organization. Bavaria was swarming with beggars. He proposed to make them industrious and self-supporting; to make them happy first and virtuous afterward. A large building called the House of industry was equipped for spinning and weaving cloth. A series of halls was fitted up for clothiers, dyers, saddlers, knitters, etc. The military workshop besides giving labor to the soldiers at good wages had also paid a revenue to the government. The House of Industry for the poor proved equally successful.
Thompson says, "The beggars not only infested all the streets and public places, but they even made a practise of going into private houses, where they never failed to steal whatever fell in their way. These detestable vermin swarmed everywhere, and they had recourse to most diabolical arts and most horrid crimes in the prosecution of their infamous trade." He had a large building fitted up in the neatest and most comfortable way. The rooms were clean, warm and well
lighted. Food was served, teachers provided for those who required instruction, and generous compensation for all labor performed. In this asylum for the poor and unfortunate, no ill usage or harsh language was permitted. On New Year's Day, 1790, 2,600 beggars in Munich and vicinity were arrested. Thompson made the first arrest with his own hands; all were treated gently. They were gathered at the town hall and informed that they must beg no more. They were promised comfortable rooms, food and remunerative work if they would labor. His House of Industry and his system of dealing with poverty accomplished what was intended, andwas subverted in Munich
His humane and practical methods of suppressing beggary gave him the title of "The Father of the Indigent." While he was dangerously ill, the poor of the city marched in procession to the cathedral and offered up prayers for his recovery. "Imagine my feelings," said he, "upon hearing the confused noise of the prayers, of a multitude of people, passing in the streets, when told that it was the poor of Munich, hundreds in number, who were going in procession to the church to put up public prayers for me—for a private person—a stranger—a protestant."
Thompson's essays on heat and light had been published by the Royal Society in their "Philosophical Transactions." He had been made a member of the Berlin Academy, and of several scientific societies of Bavaria, and later a member of the Institute of France. The elector advanced him to chamberlain, major general, head of war department, chancellor of state, and in 1791 conferred on him the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire.
Concord, New Hampshire, was incorporated in 1734 under the name of Rumford, and in choosing his title, Thompson selected the early name of the American town where he had lived.
One of the beneficent acts of Count Rumford was that of establishing a public park, called the English Garden. A neglected tract of forest in the environs of Munich that had been a part of the hunting grounds of the elector was by him converted into a beautiful park surrounded by a drive six miles in circuit. Its lovely lakes, walks, grottos, waterfalls and other charming features, are still alluring to a population fond of living in the open air. Within the park is a monument to the memory of its founder, a massive quadrangular structure of freestone. On one side is a bas-relief of Count Rumford in alabaster, below this is the inscription:
To him who rooted out the greatest of public evils,
Idleness and Mendicity, relieved and instructed
the poor, and founded many institutions for
the education of youth.
—Go, Wanderer, and strive to equal him in genius
and activity, and us in gratitude.
On the opposite side is the following:
Rumford, the friend of mankind, by genius,
taste and love inspired, changed
this once desert place into what thou
His health being impaired, he spent more than a year in Italy, and then returned to England after an absence of eleven years. On entering London he met with a terrible loss, which he never ceased to bemoan. While passing St. Paul's churchyard in the evening, his postchaise was stopped and a trunk containing all his private papers was cut from its fastenings and stolen. He said: "By this cruel robbery, I have been deprived of the fruits of the labor of my whole life and have lost all that I hold most valuable."
Rumford's wife had died in 1792 and his daughter, who was an
infant when he left America, now a young lady, joined him in London and lived with him for many years.
He was now forty-two years of age, and the main purpose of his return to England was to publish his essays. Several editions were subsequently brought out in both Europe and America, and they have been translated into German, French and Italian. While on this visit he presented a fund of one thousand pounds to the Royal Society, the interest of which was to be awarded every second year to the author of the most important discovery in light and heat. The society decided that the awards should be made in the form of medals, one of gold and one of silver, which together should contain an intrinsic value equal to the interest.
Rumford, at the same time, gave $5,000 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of Boston, to be used in the same way. In 1837 this fund had increased to $20,000. It has now grown to $59,000 and the annual income is $2,550. Up to 1905, the Rumford premium had been awarded but twenty times. The academy has, however, made a great number of grants of money from the fund to assist those who are making researches in the phenomena of heat and light, and by a decision of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, a portion of the income from the fund has been diverted to Harvard University. The Rumford professorship of Harvard will be referred to later.
After remaining a year in England, Rumford, accompanied by his daughter Sarah, returned to Munich. Here they occupied a palace supplied with every elegance, convenience and luxury. They were also permitted to use the princely summer residence of the elector, with its extensive park and mountain scenery. His daughter was made countess of the empire and allowed a pension of 2,000 florins for life.
When Napoleon repulsed the Austrians at Friedburg they retreated towards Munich, followed by the French. The elector, delegating Rumford with full authority, left the city, taking refuge in Saxony. Count Rumford at once employed his military talents to meet the emergency. He took chief command of the Bavarian forces, determined to prevent both the Austrians and French from entering the city. The gates were ordered closed and the Austrian forces occupied the opposite side of the river, where they planted their batteries. By a show of force, firmness and presence of mind, he was successful in preventing the occupation of the city by a foreign force.In 1798 he was appointed Bavarian minister to the court of St. James's. It was a thing quite unprecedented to receive at the English court a subject of Great Britain as a representative of a foreign country, and it was one of the great disappointments of his life when informed that, being a British subject, he could not be received in a diplomatic capacity. He did not receive information of his ineligibility until he had arrived in London in company with his daughter.
Rumford had always intended to take up his permanent residence in the United States, and he now proposed to establish himself near Cambridge, Mass. He wrote to his friend, Col. Baldwin, to find a desirable property, suitable to his intentions. To encourage his return to his native country, President John Adams instructed the American minister at London to write him as follows:
Although his plan to return to America originated with himself, he concluded that his obligations to the Bavarian government were so great and his relations with the institution, which he was now establishing, were so important, that they should not now be relinquished.
He had already published a plan for founding a chartered organization to be known as the Royal Institution of Great Britain, its object being the promotion and extension of science and of useful knowledge, and the application of the same to the common purposes of life. The movement at once received the support of the learned men of England; the nobility and the king appeared as patrons.
The charter was granted in January, 1800, and Rumford was appointed the first manager, to serve three years. He had been living at his house in Brompton Row with his daughter, the countess, who now wished to return to America, and, on her departure, Rumford took up his residence in the rooms of the Royal Institution. It proved to be a perfect scientific Elysium for him, being supplied with every implement for experiment that he could suggest.
The founding of this institution was his crowning work in England. It is still a monument to his genius, practical intellectual activity and to his interest in the diffusion of knowledge. He employed Humphry Davy, then little known, as the first lecturer. Faraday afterwards joined Davy and for thirty-eight years was a lecturer there. These geniuses received small compensation at the beginning of their careers. The institution allowed Davy 100 guineas a year and Faraday 25 shillings a week; both were furnished coal, candles and lodging rooms.The writer was a visitor at the Royal Institution last year and found it a flourishing organization of great influence. The Duke of Northumberland is president and Sir William Crookes, secretary. Among its professors are Lord Rayleigh, Joseph J. Thomson and Sir James Dewar. The laboratories are splendidly equipped for research work,
Drawing by Rumford, illustrating his Experiment as to Nature of Heat.
involving the provision of the most costly and complicated apparatus. No institution in the world can boast such a record of original research and important discoveries as that of the Royal Institution for the last one hundred years. Public lectures by eminent investigators are given in the lecture room. Weekly meetings are held by the members. There is a library of 60,000 volumes, and a reading room containing journals, magazines, etc. Here are preserved the historical apparatus of Davy, Faraday and others. Some of the models of Rumford's inventions are to be seen and his portrait, as founder of the institution, appears as frontispiece of the society's pamphlet.
In 1801 war with France had paralyzed industry in England, and Rumford interested himself in practical methods for relieving the poor. On his recommendations, public kitchens were established in all the great towns of England and Scotland. Sixty thousand people were fed daily from the public kitchens in London. The same plan for feeding the poor was adopted in Paris, and the name of Rumford was printed on the tickets issued to the poor authorizing them to receive food. In Geneva the tickets contained Rumford's portrait as well as his name. He, at this time, wrote to his daughter—"My greatest delight arises from the silent contemplation of having succeeded in schemes and labors for the benefit of mankind."
Rumford left England for the last time in May, 1802. His intentions to return were defeated by the obstacles of war, and the next two years were spent between Paris and Munich, finally making his permanent residence in Paris.
He was made a member of the Institute of France, and read more than a dozen papers before that body on the subjects of light, heat, combustion, illumination, etc. His lectures before the Academy of Sciences were beautifully illustrated by drawings of his own execution. Napoleon granted him the favor, as a distinguished man of science, to reside in France and draw his Bavarian and his English pensions, during the turbulent times of the empire. His reception in Paris delighted him. Parties were given him daily. The new elector of Bavaria wished to make him minister of state, but Rumford preferred to remain in Paris where were centered all that charmed him. His name was known everywhere, and the elector wrote him congratulating him on the cordiality extended to him by the French.
He soon married Madame Lavoisier, widow of the illustrious chemist who had perished, under the guillotine, a victim of the cruel Robespierre. They lived in rue d'Anjou, in the finest part of Paris. The salon of Madame Rumford was the last of the eighteenth century. Lagrange, Laplace, Guizot, Cuvier and Arago were frequent visitors. But the union of Count and Madame Rumford proved unhappy. Their characters and temperaments were incompatible, and after some domestic agitation a separation took place.
Rumford now leased a charming villa at Auteuil, which had been the abode of the celebrated Madame Helvetius, who had made it one of the chief literary centers of Paris, where our own Franklin was a favored guest. Two acres of gardens surrounded the house. It is said that Napoleon, when at St. Helena, recalled a remark made to
him by Madame Helvetius while a visitor at this house. "Ah, General, if you only knew how to be happy within the bounds of two acres of earth!"
Rumford was delighted with his home at Auteuil. His daughter returned to him from America. He was occupied with scientific and literary pursuits, often reading papers at the Academy of France and occasionally making trips to Munich, in the service of Maximilian who had now been crowned King of Bavaria. Here he continued to live happily until seized with a sudden and violent fever. He expired August 21, 1814, in the sixty-second year of his age.
Baron Cuvier, the count's intimate and confidential friend, perpetual secretary of the French Institute, delivered the Éloge before his associates, in which he said: "It is an honor to France that a man who was held in such high esteem in the two most civilized continents, should choose France for a final sojourn. Here fuller celebrity is most surely awarded, regardless of favors of courts or the freaks of fortune." Here for ten years he had been honored by Frenchmen and by foreigners.
As a philosopher and physicist, Rumford ranks among the greatest of a period that was prolific in scientific research, discovery and invention. Before he began his investigations, the world was in almost absolute ignorance regarding the nature of heat. The metaphysical philosophy of the Greeks regarding the nature of heat, which had remained undisputed for two thousand years, was by Rumford overthrown and the phenomenon established on a mechanical basis. He disproved the theory of an "igneous fluid," or caloric, and conclusively proved that heat could not be a material body. He was the first to point out that energy and heat are mutually convertible, and that both are forms of motion. He was thus the founder of our modern science of thermodynamics.
While superintending the boring of brass cannons in the Arsenal at Munich, his attention was drawn to the great amount of heat acquired by the cannon and the high temperature of the brass chips. He investigated the source of this heat. A blunt borer was pressed with great force against the bottom of the bore hole in the cylindrical riser of a brass cannon. The cannon was rotated nearly a thousand times and the heat developed was sufficient to raise the whole cylinder, which weighed 113 pounds, to seventy degrees, while the amount of metal rubbed off by the borer was only 837 grains. He concluded that the supply of heat obtained from a given quantity of metal was inexhaustible, and hence heat could not be a material substance, but must be "motion."
He had a talent for inventing scientific instruments for making experiments. He thus invented the photometer, an instrument for measuring the relative intensity of different lights; the calorimeter, for measuring the quantity of heat; the thermoscope for indicating the difference of temperatures. He was an accomplished linguist, speaking and writing French, German, Italian and English with equal facility.
Rumford was buried at Auteuil. His monument bears the following inscription:
|To the Memory of Benjamin Thompson,|
|Born in 1753 at Concord (?) near Boston, in America;|
|Died the 21st of August 1814, at Auteuil.|
|A celebrated Physicist.|
|An enlightened Philanthropist|
|His discoveries in Light and Heat have made|
|his name illustrious.|
|His labors for ameliorating the lot of the|
|poor, will cause his name to be cherished|
|forever by the friends of humanity.|
|Lieutenant General, Chief of State|
|Major General, Counselor of State|
|Minister of War.|
|Member of the Institute|
|Academy of Sciences.|
No mention is made of the honors won by him in England.
In front of the government offices, in that great art center, the city of Munich, is a noble bronze statue of Count Rumford. The figure, clad in the uniform of a Bavarian general, stands ten feet in height. It was modeled by Professor Zambush, and erected by the King of Bavaria at his private expense.
Rumford's income had been a liberal one, but he did not leave a large estate. He was free with money and spent it profusely wherever his interests were concerned. Cuvier said: "Rumford lavished his own money to teach others how to save theirs." Both his mother and daughter were, by him, supplied with annuities, and at one time he sent his mother $10,000 to be used as she pleased.
The Count's last will was executed in 1812. Lafayette signed it as a witness. After providing for his daughter, he bequeathed to Harvard University an annuity of $1,000, and also made that university his residuary legatee. The bequest was for the purpose of founding a professorship to teach the utility of the physical and mathematical sciences. The capital sum received by Harvard University from the Rumford estate was $28,395. This has been increased until the "Rumford Fund" is now $56,441. The professorship was established in 1816. A fine portrait of Count Rumford hangs in the room of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, No. 5, University Hall.
In the summer of 1906 the writer made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rumford. After passing the fine statue of Franklin, in the Place du Trocodero, the rue Franklin was followed to the rue de Passy, thence to the rue Mozart, which leads directly to Eumford's house in the rue d'Auteuil. While ambassador to France, Franklin traversed these streets many times to visit his friend Madame Helvetius, who then lived in the house later occupied by Rumford. In his "Dialoguebetween Franklin and the Gout" Franklin is accused of taking too little exercise. Gout says: "Behold your fair friend at Auteuil. . . . When she honors you with a visit, it is on foot. In this see at once the preservation of her health and personal charms. But when you go to Auteuil, you must have your carriage, though it is no farther from Passy to Auteuil than from Auteuil to Passy."
Rumford's house appears to be much as it was one hundred years ago, although shorn of its two acres of gardens and now with shabby exterior. The front is enclosed by a high iron fence, with heavy gates and there still remains a suggestion of shrubbery and flowers. In 1870 this house was the scene of a tragedy in which Prince Pierre Bonaparte shot and killed Victor Noir, a young journalist, who had presented a challenge.
Half a mile southward in the Rue Michel Ange is the cemetery of Auteuil. It is surrounded by a high wall and contains probably more than half an acre of ground. The graves are much crowded and the paths narrow. ~No interments are now made there. The tomb of Count Rumford is near the south wall. The horizontal stone is perhaps six feet square; the vertical stone of about the same dimensions, and three feet thick. The material appears to be a soft marble, now so badly weathered that the inscriptions are illegible.