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THE STRANGE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF AMERICA’S OTHER BEN FRANKLIN, BY AN AUTHOR SO FASCINATED HE’S WRITING A NOVEL ABOUT HIM
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
In this vein he produced such essays as: “Of the Excellent Qualities of Coffee and the Art of Making It in the Highest Perfection”; “Of Food, and Particularly of Feeding the Poor”; “On the Salubrity of Warm Rooms”; “On the Salubrity of Warm Bathing”; “An Account of Some Experiments Upon Gunpowder”; “Conjectures Respecting the Principles of Harmony of Colours”; “On the Management of Fire and the Economy of Fuel”; “On the Management of Light in Illumination”; “On the Propagation of Heat in Liquids”; “Reflections on Heat.” Other titles in the five-volume Collected Works of Count Rumford consist of topics as various as “An Account of Some Experiments Made to Determine the Quantities of Moisture Absorbed from the Atmosphere by Various Substances”; “Chimney Fireplaces, with Proposals for Improving Them to Save Fuel, to Render Dwelling-Houses more Comfortable and Salubrious, and Effectually to Prevent Chimneys From Smoking”; “On the Specific Gravity, Strength, Diameter, and Cohesion of Silk”; “Plans for the Construction of a Frigate”; “An Account of an Establishment for the Poor at Munich”—all in a high-toned hortatory rhetoric aimed at a general audience that might be thereby improved.
While he loved to live near royalty and gloried in their favor, he labored unceasingly for the poor.
“What exquisite pleasures then must it afford, to collect the scattered rays of useful science and direct them, united , to objects of general utility! to throw them in a broad beam on the cold and dreary habitations of the poor! spreading cheerfulness and comfort all around!”
It’s clear that such an attitude signals a man more at ease with ideas than emotion; the charitable impulse was, in his case, abstract. He preferred humanity in general to its specific representatives; he did not suffer fools gladly, and he found, everywhere, fools. Heat and light were his great subjects; he measured candle-power and understood the nature of the transmission of heat. He was a founder of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and, it has been argued, the father of nuclear physics. While boring the emperor’s cannon in the arsenal at Munich, he challenged the widely held assumption that heat was a kind of invisible substance, or phlogiston, transferred from object to object. The water at the cannon’s base, Thompson found, routinely reached the boiling point, and it did so just as often as the cannon barrel was bored. So he argued against a theory of caloric: “anything which any insulated body, or system of bodies, can continue to furnish without limitation , cannot possibly be a material substance .”
But he was more a practical inventor than a theorist; he worked on stoves and fireplaces and cooking utensils and rafts. Pragmatic from his boots to his hat and to his very fingertips (he purveyed gloves, shoes, and uniforms for the troops), Count Rumford was convinced that order could be salvaged out of chaos and that profit would supersede loss. He understood the value of wide wheels on carriages and of double glazing in windows; he organized the poor and taught them to spin wool. He invented the convertible sofa and improved the double boiler; he proselytized for coffee and the drip coffeepot.
His great friend Mary Palmerston owned a town house in London so sooty with discharge she feared to use the furniture. “A smokey house and scolding wife/Are two of the greatest ills in life”—so ran a period rhyme. When Mary asked Count Rumford to turn his attention from engines of warfare to domestic engines, he obliged. He introduced the smoke shelf, to keep the wind from howling straight down the chimney and scattering ash in a room. He narrowed the aperture, made it less deep, and regularized the temperature of kitchens, stairwells, bedrooms, and sitting rooms; his fireplace has not been improved on since.
If history in fact is written by the victors, then villains are routinely drawn from the vanquished ranks. Had Thompson not cast his lot with Royalists he would be far more celebrated in this country now; had Franklin not become a spokesman for the common man there might be no Poor Richard’s Almanack in print. In America Ben Thompson’s likeness has been relegated to the black bewigged silhouette on a can of baking powder. And those few who have actually heard of him believe him to be English, not Massachusetts-born. His reputation stands in near-total eclipse; his experiments with gunpowder, his invention of the “Rumford stove and roaster,” his fervent sponsorship of the potato in Europe—these are oddities.
The Rumford Complete Cook Book , first printed in 1908 by the Rumford Chemical Works in Rhode Island, has this to say of its progenitor—less lofty, perhaps, than Delessert’s panegyric but worth quoting also in its praise of “the grand master of the great guild of chefs, the first and greatest scientist of the kitchen”: “He was the first to study diet; to invent an effective oven, and roaster, and tea kettle, and boiler; to advocate drip coffee; to suggest holes in the handles of pots and pans so they can be hung up; to analyze fuels and the management of heat; to devise the modern airtight stove; to lay out efficient kitchens; to reason about the construction of oven doors and thereby open up the great field of insulation.