September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
THE STRANGE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF AMERICA’S OTHER BEN FRANKLIN, BY AN AUTHOR SO FASCINATED HE’S WRITING A NOVEL ABOUT HIM
History, we’re told, is written by the victors; a nation tends to focus on its patriots, not its traitors, and those who depart are forgotten when gone. But the history of revolution in America and the “revolt of the colonies” are two faces of a single coin: the choice of independence was a nearer thing than at present we portray it, and several of the best minds of the period were uncertain which side to support.
“Many-sided men,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt told an interviewer in 1932, “have always attracted me. I have always had the keenest interest in five men … of comparatively modern times.” They were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. Of Roosevelt’s list, the last named is the only one not now a household word. Yet in certain circles while he lived—the scientific community, for example, and the townspeople of Munich—the count seemed nonpareil.
Some twenty years ago I owned a farm with several fireplaces, one of them formal and shallow and tall. I couldn’t make it work, although it clearly had before; it smoked and sputtered out. I gave it up, left it alone, till one of his adepts appeared and said, “Rumford. It’s a Rumford fireplace!” and showed me how to use it, to stand the kindling up and set the logs upright. Hey, presto, everything was heat!
Then ten years passed, fifteen. A friend of mine is a physicist whose specialty is heat transfer, and he told me he was working on the theories of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. The name rang a dull bell; it signified, dimly, that smoke-charged and then splendid fireplace, and I asked my friend to tell me, in twenty-five words or more, what interested him about the man and the mind. He did so, speaking of heat transfer and Thompson’s proof that heat was not a substance in and of itself. He spoke of Thompson’s contributions to practical science, to the dissemination of knowledge and machinery, to his work as a soldier and spy. Then he mentioned the man’s private life; the words he used were “scoundrel,” “rake,” and “wag.” To a novelist such language is well-nigh irresistible. The subject declared itself and would not go away. I set to work writing a historical novel based on Rumford’s life.
Benjamin Thompson was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753; he died on the outskirts of Paris, as Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, at the age of sixty-one. His titles had come to include Knight of the Orders of the White Eagle and St. Stanislaus and Privy Counsellor of State, and Lieutenant General in the Service of His Most Serene Highness the Elector Palatine, Reigning Duke of Bavaria. He was a man of consequence—mistrusted by the French, the Germans, the Americans, and the English equally—so his burial could not go unremarked. The mourners, however, were few. This was Napoleon’s city, near the end of a protracted war, and Thompson was in lifelong exile from the country of his birth. Here, in translation, is the address pronounced over his grave by Baron Benjamin Delessert, on the twenty-fourth of August, 1814.
“It is permitted to me, my friends, as a member of the Administration of Hospitals, to be the medium of expressing our sorrow at the loss of the distinguished man who was pleased to honor me with his friendship. I leave it to more eloquent voices to speak of the productions of his rare genius; to boast of his numerous discoveries in the sciences, and his ingenious methods of penetrating to the secrets of nature; to describe his theory of heat, his experiments upon light, his observations upon combustion, upon steam, upon gunpowder; and to commemorate him as the founder of the Royal Institution of London.
“I wish here and now only to recall to your minds those of his most directly useful and beneficent works which have made his name known in every part of Europe. Who is ignorant of what he has done for relieving the scarcity in food; of his multiplied efforts for making food more healthful, more agreeable, and above all, more economical; what service he has rendered to humanity in introducing the general use of the soups which go by his own name, and which have been so invaluable to so many thousands of persons exposed to the horrors of the prevailing scarcity? Who has not been made acquainted with his effective methods for suppressing mendicity; with his Houses of Industry, for work and instruction; with his means for improving the construction of chimneys, of lamps, of furnaces, of baths, of heating by steam; and, in fine, with his varied undertakings in the cause of domestic economy?
“In England, in France, in Germany, in all parts of the continent, the people are enjoying the blessings of his discoveries; and, from the humble dwelling of the poor even to the palaces of sovereigns, all will remember that his sole aim was to be always useful to his fellow-men.
“Alas! death has snatched him away in the midst of his labors. Pitiless death has removed him from those to whom he consecrated his existence. But his spirit survives on this terrestrial orb. His genius, smiling over us, lifts itself heavenward, and he goes to take one of the high places prepared for the benefactors of humanity.”
Funerary language is all too often excessive, but Baron Delessert told the truth when he said that this “rare genius” had been widely honored in Europe. The Royal Institution in London still displays its founder’s portrait in Albemarle Street, and he was the single American to be painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Rumford was an honorary member—no mean feat—of the Academy of Science in France; he rid Munich of its beggars, turning them from the “evils of mendicity” to profitable labor in a municipal workhouse.
For this and other services to a beleaguered Bavaria, according to a proclamation by “Carl Theodor, Elector at Rhine by the grace of God, Duke of Upper and Lower Bavaria, Lord High Steward and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire,” he was made a count on May 9, 1792. (It’s worth remarking here that the Empire was nearly defunct, a shadow entity, and that this was the sort of title available to foreigners.) The count’s statue presides over Munich’s Maximilianstrasse, and his monument over a corner of the English Gardens—a park he single-handedly designed. He was the subject of respectful rhyme and that form of backhanded compliment, caricature.
The “benefactor of humanity” left a will dated September 28, 1812; one of its witnesses was the Marquis de Lafayette. Included in the bequests were a plain gold watch for the chemist Humphry Davy and a gold-headed cane and gold-enameled watch, with the gold chain and seals attached, for the American Daniel Parker. To Benjamin, Baron Delessert, Rumford left a gold-enameled snuffbox, set around with diamonds, that had been given him by His Majesty Francis II, Emperor of Austria. The bulk of the estate, however, was set aside for a trio of beneficiaries: Harvard College, the United States Military Academy, and Rumford’s daughter, Sarah.
These three principal recipients tell an intriguing tale. They represent, turn by turn, the components—intellectual, military, domestic—of the “distinguished man’s” career. Yet Ben Thompson did not attend Harvard; he was a Tory sympathizer and a secret agent in the Revolution, and he and his daughter, whom he abandoned when she was an infant, rarely saw eye to eye. It’s true, of course, that legators may attempt to remedy by testament the real or fancied attitude of a legatee, to punish or reward an enemy or friend. So we can read a deathbed dispensation as a remedy for failure, a change of heart after the fact. But this testament is of a piece with the adventurer who made it, and it’s possible, therefore, to get some sense of the paradox inhering in Count Rumford’s life by starting at its end. How had he come to this pass?
Ben Thompson was a meliorist. His writings are full of a Franklin-like agenda for self-help and, by extension, the improvement of society; to understand a problem—according to this optimistic view of things—is to have it solved. As Rumford wrote in an essay proposing “the Excellent Qualities of Coffee,” “When the cause of any evil is perfectly known, it is seldom very difficult to find a means to prevent it.” He was persuaded that people could, should be improved, and the rational first step for any such improvement consists of education. Here is the course of study he prescribed himself when apprenticed to Dr. John Hay of Woburn, at sixteen:
His inclination was to lead away from medicine, but his first known scientific drawing represents a “monstrous child” born in Woburn on April 16, 1771. Ben Thompson displayed a precocious free-ranging intelligence. His experiments with gunpowder, which were to make him famous, began when he was fifteen years old and working for John Appleton, a merchant in the town of Salem. Later he would write, “The explosion of gunpowder is certainly one of the most surprising phaenomena we are acquainted with, and I am persuaded it would much oftener have been the subject of the investigations of speculative philosophers, as well as of professional men, in this age of inquiry, were it not for the danger attending the experiments; but the force of gunpowder is so great, and its effects so sudden and terrible, that, notwithstanding all the precautions possible, there is ever a considerable degree of danger attending the management of it, as I have more than once found to my cost.” While fashioning a set of rockets, young Thompson blew himself up. He returned to Woburn in order to recuperate; there he engaged in scientific discourse with his friend and neighbor Loammi Baldwin:
Woburn Aug 16th 1769
Mr. Loammi Baldwin Sir
Please to inform me in what manner fire opperates upon Clay to Change the Colour from the Natural Colour to red and from red to Black &c and how it operates upon Silver to Change it to Blue
I am Your most Huml & obedient Servant Benjamin Thompson
God Save the King
He and Baldwin walked from Woburn to Cambridge (no small ramble—a thirty-mile round trip) to listen to the lectures of the celebrated astronomer John Winthrop. Later, when in England, he would help create the Royal Institution for the “edification and instruction” of the common man. And his essays are full of hortatory insistence on the value of experiment, promoting both trial and error and scientific self-reliance, those most American of virtues. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford would have found Thompson congenial; Luther Burbank and Buckminster Fuller might have recognized a kindred spirit in the count. So although he was an auto-didact and had not attended college, he showed a lifelong interest in and respect for the academy; there is still today at Harvard a “Rumford Professor of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences as applied to the useful Arts.”
His gift of maps and books and drawings to the Military Academy seems rather more surprising; it’s as if Benedict Arnold had bequeathed his papers to the library at Fort Ticonderoga. Major Thompson was a Tory, one of General Gage’s informers, and a military spy. Using a form of invisible ink—he called it “sympathetic ink” and fashioned it from an infusion of nutgalls—he wrote to the English general about the training, disposition, and preparedness of the American troops. When his double-agent dealings were about to be unmasked, he fled from Boston to London. He returned to these shores only once, as a lieutenant colonel in King George’s service, and earned a reputation for ferocity in war.
In Charleston, South Carolina, he engaged the troops of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” beating them at Wambaw Creek; after that he sailed north. Camped in Huntington, Long Island, he slaughtered the farmers’ livestock, tore down their fences for kindling, and razed the local church. He requisitioned tombstones from the local cemetery and converted them into baker’s slabs. Legend has it that he made the citizens of Huntington eat bread with their relatives’ initials incised upon the crusts. So Ben Thompson was much hated in America. But he never quite could understand why his natal nation did not make him welcome home, and though it seems at best improbable that he would have been appointed to administer the army he had attempted to subdue, he once proposed himself as the military supervisor of West Point.
There’s something of the mercenary here—a selling to the highest bidder—and something also of Count Rumford’s lifelong love of order. The hierarchical arrangement of the British army must have seemed far more congenial to the young Tory than the higgledy-piggledy massing of the patriots’ militia. Also, the notion of national affinity—that cluster of emotions we now describe as love of country—was less well defined in the eighteenth century; men crossed boundaries at will and worked where they were paid. To be a “man without a country” was not necessarily to be an alien or alone. One has the sense that what this soldier most enjoyed was the chance to prance astride a horse, beribboned and bright-helmeted, approving a parade. He first attracted the attention of Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire by how well he sat his mount and wore his cloak; later he became the associate of Prince Maximilian des Deux Ponts for much the same reason, in Strasbourg. He ended his military career in the service of the Elector Palatine—and one of his first acts as chamberlain and general was to improve the costume of the Bavarian troops. He paid attention all his life to cockades, furs, silks, caps, and capes; in his old age he liked to go for carriage rides while wearing, entirely, white.
The career is rich and strange; it resists brief summary. Rumford’s published writings run to several thousand pages; his preserved letters are numerous also, as are contemporary accounts. His father died when he was young; his mother remarried a farmer, and he began with few advantages. Thompson was handsome, however, and tall and strong; he took French and fencing lessons and, in exchange for cut and delivered hardwood, bought a blue Hussar cloak. In this garment he went courting and won his first campaign. Further, he possessed an active—his enemies would call it opportunistic—imagination; he created himself from whole cloth.
When it came time to solicit a title in Britain, he enlarged upon his ancestors’ importance, conferring on them an invented relation to “the antient and respectable Family of Thompson of the County of York, from a constant Tradition that they derived their Descent from that Source. …” All his life he courted favor, from both male and female sponsors, and it helped if the sponsors were rich. Gov. John Wentworth, Lord George Germain, Prince Maximilian des Deux Ponts, the Elector Palatine, Countess Baumgarten, Mary Palmerston, and Mary, Countess Nogarola fell—turn by turn, and there were others—under his elegant spell.
His first marriage was contracted well above his station: to the wealthiest widow in Concord, New Hampshire, where he went as a tutor at nineteen. (The town of Concord had been called Rumford, Massachusetts, when first settled. Once the border dispute was resolved, with the banks of the Merrimack River serving as boundary between the colonies, the town was renamed Concord in honor of that treaty. When he became a count of the Holy Roman Empire, Thompson signaled his nobility by taking his wife’s town’s name.) She was in her thirties and, by his account, rapacious: “She married me, not I her.”
Of their brief union, before he had to flee America as a British spy, came Thompson’s single legitimate child. Daughter Sarah did not marry, although she wanted to; he sent for her in Europe to serve as his companion. Their relationship proved uneasy, often strained; after his death she returned to Concord and hung portraits of his mistresses on the parlor walls. She burned her father’s “scolding letters” and the treatise with which he had occupied himself during his retirement. An essay on “The Nature and Effects of Order,” it was to have been Rumford’s magnum opus, or so he in his correspondence claimed.
His second marriage—to the widow of the great French chemist Lavoisier—was a very public failure, and it made society laugh. Madame Marie Paulze Lavoisier lost both her father and her first husband to the guillotine; in middle age she enjoyed entertaining and maintained a salon. But Count Rumford wanted to pursue his scientific work in peace. They had bedroom disagreements and drawing-room harangues. She poured boiling water on his flowers; he locked the gate on her guests.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given Baron Delessert’s assertion (“what service he has rendered to humanity by introducing the general use of the soups which go by his own name”), Count Rumford had become the butt of jokes. He was a firm believer in the value of proper nutrition; he wrote about the virtue of potatoes and dry bread in soup. But when the French ate poorly, they called it dining à la Rumford . He invented the photometer and improved the Argand lamp, yet a cartoon showed a man so blinded by the count’s hand lantern that he wandered all night in the Bois de Boulogne and fell down in a ditch.
At last, and fearing for his health, he withdrew from the center of Paris to the suburb of Auteuil. There he inhabited the house where another distinguished American Benjamin, Franklin, had come calling years before, paying flirtatious attention to its owner, Madame Helvétius. Unlike the sociable Franklin, however, Count Rumford as he aged grew more and more reclusive: jealous of his reputation, quick to pick a quarrel when his honor was impugned. He busied himself playing billiards and chess—solo, complaining of a “fire in his head.” His final consort and housekeeper was Victoire LefÀvre, with whom he had his final illegitimate child. His will provided for them also, but the boy, registered as born to un père absent , grew up to be a soldier and was killed in the Crimea.
His one acknowledged child, the Dowager Sarah, Countess Rumford, died on December 2, 1852, when she was seventy-nine years old. She left her large house and land in Concord, and her considerable fortune, to charity. She had two favorite causes and endowed them by bequest: a home for parentless children and the New Hampshire Asylum for the indigent insane.
“To make vicious and abandoned people happy,” Thompson wrote, “it has been generally supposed necessary first to make them virtuous. But why not reverse this order? Why not make them first happy, and then virtuous? If happiness and virtue be inseparable , the end will be as certainly obtained by one method as by the other; and it is most undoubtedly much easier to contribute to the happiness and comfort of persons in a state of poverty and misery, than, by admonitions and punishments, to reform their morals.”
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.
“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.
“‘My principal design,’ he said, ‘is to fix the attention of my readers on a subject which is highly interesting and deserving of the most serious consideration. I wish to inspire cooks with a just idea of the importance of their art. In what other art could improvements be made that would more powerfully contribute to the enjoyments of mankind?”
We have no indication, however, that Rumford liked to eat. He wrote precise instructions on how best to consume a pudding but was himself abstemious, indifferent to food. A peculiar blend of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries—the enlightened and the romantic spirit—informs his life and work. He was vainglorious in the extreme yet took out no patents and wanted no payment for his inventions; a self-made man and social climber, he upheld established order with real zeal. He loved to live near royalty and gloried in their favor, yet his labors were unceasing for the “improvement” of the poor.
Further, and for all his individual attainments, Thompson represents a kind of eighteenth-century man—the willing tinkerer, the autodidact, and the polymath—not easy to reconstitute in our present age. Though his career seems the stuff of romance, his approach to adventure was matter-of-fact. A solitary searcher in the mode of Goethe’s Faustus, he moved from court to court. Only with the advent of the Romantics did we turn introspective or self-searching; this lifelong wanderer appears to have spent nearly no time at all looking back over his shoulder at what he left behind. So his legacies (to a college he did not attend, an army he betrayed, and a daughter he abandoned) may have entailed neither self-awareness nor an attempt at restitution; he was persuaded of his own merit and the gratitude deserved. He died long before the photograph, in a time when those who wished to represent their circumstance and to register importance would commission a portrait in oil. In the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we have one enduring image of the man and the face.
He sits for Thomas Gainsborough in Schomberg House, Pall Mall. It is 1783; the artist is fifty-six years old, near the end of his career. Thompson—at thirty—wears his white cravat and red coat and holds his black hat balanced in the crook of his left elbow. His wig is gray and thick on top, brushed straight back from his forehead, then curling at his ears.
It is not a full-length portrait. The canvas is rectangular, and within that rectangle the painter sets an oval. Within this framed interior Thompson’s face and chest emerge—so that the effect is of a cameo, the head its own medallion. The background wall is russet, the oval darker brown. They both have been painted lightly, in advance. There is no attempt at furniture or landscape, no secondary figure in the scene. Gainsborough provides Rumford with no hands or lap or legs. It is faster that way, and cheaper. He draws no horse or hunting dogs or cannon or flowering tree.
At the two sides of the canvas, however, in addition to the lower edge, the oval is truncate. This suggests a space beyond. It is as though the king’s dragoon might burst into the world outside the frame’s perimeter—a trick of composition so that, lifelike, he escapes confinement. Had the canvas been three inches larger, the secondary form of the medallion that contains him would itself have been contained. Perspective renders circular the slope of his shoulders, the arc of the lapel and corner of his hat. His buttons too are circles, and they echo the motif. The perpendicular bisector of the canvas is a plumb line dropping from his nose to mouth to chin.
What the painter saw and captured is a man no longer young. The king’s dragoon displays his costume well. He bears himself erect. The nose and chin are strong. The gaze is clear, unwinking yet abstracted; a half-smile—as of some private joke, some inner rumination—plays about the lips. He is resting, not irresolute; he waits for the impulse and then for permission to move. The forehead high and white, the lines about the mouth, the hint in the texture of the skin of hardships weathered—all these the painter caught. He fashioned of impermanence its opposite, a permanence, a dissolution stayed.