Benjamin Thompson

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Benjamin Thompson


British Physicist, Inventor, and Diplomat

As a scientist, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, is best remembered for his discoveries that provided the foundation for modern theories of heat and for a number of practical inventions that improved living and working conditions.

Thompson was a most intriguing individual. His life was characterized by ambition and opportunism. Throughout his career, his contributions to science and society were always interwoven with political schemes. It is fortunate that the significant results of his work were not ultimately harmed by the motives that led him to their accomplishment.

At the age of 19 he married a wealthy widow and, through her influence, was appointed a major in the New Hampshire militia. Because he spied for the royal governor against the colonists, he was forced to flee with the British from Boston in 1776. In London, he convinced the government that he was an expert on colonial matters, was appointed to assist the Colonial Secretary, and soon became Undersecretary of State. He returned to American briefly as the commander of royal troops in New York.

Soon after the end of the war, he moved on to Bavaria where he became aide-de-camp to the elector of Bavaria and a colonel in the Bavarian army. Thereafter, he was knighted by the English king and became the Bavarian minister of war, minister of police, major general, chamberlain of the court, and state councilor, holding all of these offices at the same time. In 1791 he was named Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire.

Subsequently, Thompson spent time in England. In 1798 he founded the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He also founded the Rumford Professorship at Harvard and successfully proposed the establishment of the United States Military Academy at West Point. While in France, he became a friend of Napoleon and married the widow of the great French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794).

Thompson followed the principle that a problem should be carefully and scientifically studied before a solution is attempted. Most of his scientific discoveries and inventions were the result of observations and experiments during attempts to solve military and political problems. His most important findings on the nature of heat came as a result of observations made while boring metal blocks to make cannons. From these observations he came to important conclusions concerning the relationship of work and heat and made some of the earliest measurements of the equivalence of work and heat. He proposed that heat is not a substance, but rather the result of the motion of particles.

His discoveries of convection currents and conductivity of heat resulted from studies he performed on various materials to be used for army uniforms, and his founding of the science of nutrition resulted from efforts to develop the cheapest way to feed the army. He pocketed the money saved.

Thompson's studies and writings dealing with improvements in social institutions are recognized as among the first in the field of sociology. He studied the economics of social organization, founded public schools, provided work for the beggars of Munich, and extended his findings to society in general. Again, his motives were not the best. He put beggars to work making army uniforms as a cheap alternative to professional tailors. The schools were provided so that the poor would be free to work without having to care for their children during the day.

These various efforts also led to practical inventions that improved life significantly at that time, and many are still in use today. Among these are the double boiler, the kitchen range, a portable field stove, the baking oven, a fireplace that does not smoke, the fireplace damper, table lamps, the drip coffeemaker, and steam heat using radiators.


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Benjamin Thompson

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