- Historic Sites
The Remarkable American Count
Brilliant Benjamin Thompson won world fame as Count Rumford the scientist but never dispelled his countrymen’s suspicions
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
On Munich’s bustling Maximilianstrasse, before the huge Bavarian National Museum, is a bronze statue of a tall, elegant, strikingly handsome man in the uniform of a general of the late Eighteenth Century. His chiseled features are framed by a peruke, a military cloak hangs in folds to his knees, across his chest slants the broad riband of an order of knighthood, he swings a tasseled cane as he strides forward arrogantly, and his left hand grasps the plans of the city’s famous Englischer Garten which he conceived and laid out.
That statue was erected by Maximilian II, king of Bavaria, in recognition of the public services of Graf von Rumford, the great minister of an earlier ruler. Yet it is the exceptional American tourist who recognizes in the figure a fellow countryman, and even he seldom knows how to evaluate that strange man. Was he an international scoundrel as rumored from his day to our own, or was he one of the greatest benefactors of the human race—a thinker ranked by Franklin D. Roosevelt beside Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson?
Count Rumford was born plain Benjamin Thompson on a modest Massachusetts farm in 1753. From this unlikely beginning he rose to become an English knight, a count of the Holy Roman Empire, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a member of the Institute of France. During the course of his meteoric career, he played the roles of a medical student, a schoolteacher, a cavalry officer, an influential civil servant, a creative scientist, a tireless inventor, and a de facto dictator of an important European state. All this he owed to his own great genius alone, for he started his incredible life with no advantages whatever save his compelling personality and his strong and restless mind.
The brilliance and capacity which won him worldwide acclaim were counterbalanced in a curious way by faults of character that so marred the mold as to raise serious question whether his services exceeded his villainies. Although he seldom failed to charm anyone upon whom he chose to turn his sparkling conversation and handsome carriage, he could count his true friends on the fingers of one hand. So many men did he alienate that his enemies numbered thousands. His marital life was a shambles: one wife he deserted, with a second he fought in public, and he passed from one mistress to another until in the end he had little to remember and nothing to anticipate. He, personally, destroyed any chance for happiness his only daughter ever had. He unquestionably betrayed the land of his birth and probably England and Bavaria as well. He reached the end of his life in lonely exile—truly a man without a country.
Although bereft of his father when he was an infant, Benjamin Thompson enjoyed a reasonably normal boyhood and was apprenticed to a merchant at thirteen. After working in Salem and in Boston, he returned to his native Woburn to study medicine with Dr. John Hay. It was during this period that he wrote his first scientific paper—an account of an abnormal birth which was not accepted for publication. He improved his grasp of science by attending, with his lifelong friend Loammi Baldwin, the lectures of Professor John Winthrop at Harvard. He also studied French and soon was ready to accept a teaching appointment in nearby Bradford where the Reverend Samuel Williams further stimulated his scientific interests. While there, he had a paper on the aurora borealis rejected, but even in its manuscript state it reveals the care and clarity of his scientific observations.
In the summer of 1772, the selectmen of Rumford (the name was later changed to Concord) invited Thompson to become the schoolmaster in that New Hampshire town. Shortly alter his arrival he was introduced to the rich and comely widow of Colonel Rolfe, a lady fourteen years his senior, who fell in love with him on sight. “I married, or rallier I was married,” Thompson told a friend, “at nineteen.”
On their honeymoon the newlyweds drove in the bride’s canary-colored chaise to Portsmouth, the capital and social center of the province. The Thompsons having been invited to attend a grand military muster at Dover, the most brilliant social event of the year, Benjamin appeared astride a spirited white stallion. Tall in the saddle, broad in the shoulder, and slim in the waist, he cut a striking figure in a scarlet coat, almost indistinguishable from a cavalry jacket, over which he wore a blue hussar cloak faced with scarlet. According to the tradition, the royal governor, John Wentworth, was so impressed that he invited the bridal couple to dine with him and quickly fell under the spell of the extraordinary young Yankee. The Governor became his enthusiastic patron.
Socially the ex-schoolteacher had much to recommend him. He had the polished manners of a patrician, which was surprising in view of his humble background. He conversed entertainingly and authoritatively on a vast variety of topics, he was always impeccably turned out, and he had a rich wife. He happily joined the Governor’s circle. He accepted a majority in the 15th Regiment of New Hampshire militia which, even though largely a paper unit, represented a high honor. He agreed to accompany the Governor on an exploring expedition to the White Mountains which, but for the unsettlement of the times, would have been carried through.