Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814)
Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814)
Early Life in America. One of the greatest American scientists of his day was in some respects not “American” at all since he did virtually all his important work in Europe. Benjamin Thompson was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753 and later taught school in Concord, New Hampshire. During the American Revolution he remained loyal to the Crown, having married a rich widow and taken to the life of the elite, and was jailed for two weeks in 1775 when American authorities suspected him of treasonous behavior. After being released he joined the British army in Boston and left for England when the British were forced out of that city by Gen. George Washington. He then served in the office of the secretary of state for several years. Thompson returned to America in 1781 and commanded a regiment of dragoons, after which he went to Europe and never again set foot on his native soil. In 1784 King George III knighted Thompson in recognition of his service.
Bavarian Noble. While in England he became acquainted with the elector of Bavaria, and with King George’s permission served the elector as grand chamberlain and minister of war from 1784 to 1795. By the mid 1790s he was spending most of his time on scientific experiments. Thompson invented a revolutionary fireplace, with a tall, shallow opening to reflect more heat. He also invented the coffee percolator. Thompson was active in philanthropy, creating public-works projects for the poor and campaigning for education reform. In 1791 he was created a count of the Holy Roman Empire and chose the title of Rumford (the original name of Concord, New Hampshire).
Legacy. Thompson’s scientific research on heat and friction proved productive. In 1798 he wrote a groundbreaking paper titled “An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Source of the Heat which is Excited by Friction,” in which he argued that heat is caused by the motion of particles. In 1799 he was instrumental in organizing the Royal Institution in England. During this time he also experimented with light and developed a calorimeter and photometer. Unfortunately his work was marred by his opinionated, condescending, and dictatorial style. In 1804 he moved to Auteuil, outside Paris, where he died ten years later. Thompson remembered his native land at his death, bequeathing most of his money and possessions to the government of the United States, including a fund at Harvard College for a professorship “to teach the utility of the physical and mathematical sciences for the improvement of the arts and for the extension of the industry, prosperity, happiness, and well-being of society.” His grave in Auteuil is cared for today jointly by Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston.
Sanborn C. Brown, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979).
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