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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
Repairing to Paris, he was joined by his daughter, whose romances he had systematically broken up. In 1805—his first wife having died many years before he married Madame Lavoisier, the widow of the celebrated chemist who had been guillotined during the Revolution. The Count’s eccentricities would have made any marriage difficult, but it was quite impossible to harmonize his desire for quiet with her need for a full social life. After four years they separated. He withdrew to a pleasant home in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, where he continued his scientific writing.
Rumford’s science always had a distinctly practical cast. Its applications fascinated him and, at one time or another, he introduced many useful inventions. To further experimentation, he devised the shadow photometer which is still used to test the intensity of different light sources and a new calorimeter to measure the heat of combustion products. He improved the Argand lamp; solved, finally, the problem of smoky chimneys; and invented the Rumford stove for heating. Much concerned about cooking and food, he described a pressure cooker and a drip coffee pot. And he invented the so-called Rumford roaster. Recipes also sprang from his culinary interests; among them “Rumford soup” was the most celebrated.
Unquestionably a genius and benefactor of mankind, Rumford died a troubled man who knew he had brought little happiness to those with whom he had been most intimate. Baron Cuvier, one of the few who had good to say of him, confessed that although he rendered many “services to his fellowmen, he had no real love or regard for them.” Even Loammi Baldwin admitted that he was “too much attached to greatness and splendor.”
Rumford never achieved the satisfaction he always pursued. Permitted to live in France at the sufferance of Napoleon, he made clear in his will the price he had paid for fame and achievement. After providing for his daughter, he made only two significant grants. He offered his military library to the government of the United States to be placed in its Military Academy. To Harvard College he bequeathed funds, including the reversion of his whole estate, for the establishment of a new professorship. Plaintively this last testament finally expressed the wish that his daughter would make her home in the United States.
This strange, restless man has been, as he should be, honored for his attainments and for his contributions. He can only be pitied for his failings. It was perhaps in this spirit that Woburn, which witnessed his early genius and expelled him for his early transgressions, has also erected a bronze statue of her most illustrious son, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.