Sunday, June 20, 2010

The contentious count: Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford

Presented to the Club by Roger B. Linscott in 1993.

As usually seems to be the case when my turn comes to read to this august group, I must start by explaining that the title on the notices sent out by [Club secretary] Harold Salzmann has nothing to do with the contents of my paper. "The Way West" was designed to fit an account of the coming of railroads to Berkshire County 150 years ago — but that paper was derailed, subsequent to Harold's call for a title, because I found that a carton of notes I had accumulated on the subject over the years was missing following a move from Pittsfield to Richmond three months ago. Possibly the notes will return in time to bore or edify you in 1993, but tonight you will get a pinch-hitter in the form of a paper that might better be entitled "The contentious count." It deals with a greatly underrated historical figure who has always been a special favorite of mine – Benjamin Thompson, better known to history as Count Rumford.

Lest a few of the more senior members of this group are experiencing vague feelings of deja vu, I should add that he figured in a paper I delivered some 30 years ago — although, if my increasingly unreliable memory serves, he was obliged to play second fiddle to several other 18th century characters on that occasion. In any event, Benjamin Thompson (the name by which I shall refer to him most frequently in this paper) is a person for whom I have always felt a somewhat proprietary interest. I am the possessor of not one but half a dozen cartons of material about him, because I dabbled with the idea of undertaking a book on the subject until that task was authoritatively performed by two competent biographers in the 1970s.
My interest springs from personal connection. Benjamin Thompson was born across the road from my ancestral home in what was then the farming village of North Woburn — pronounced WOEBURN by outsiders but WOOBIN by the natives — a community 12 miles north of Boston. My grandfather, Andrew Linscott, was the founder of the Rumford Historical Association, which still exists; and in front of the Woburn Public Library there stands a statue of the count which, in its inscription, describes him as "one of the first and greatest of American scientists, a man who proved that heat is motion and had a glimpse of the great doctrine known later as the conservation of energy."

Actually, Benjamin Thompson was more than a scientist and inventor of extraordinary insight and originality. He was also a soldier of fortune, a blackmailer, a spy, a social reformer, an unscrupulous adventurer — a many-sided and arrogant genius who was viewed by some as an international scoundrel and by others as a benefactor with few peers. Napoleon rated him among the great minds of his era, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were the only Americans of that day who could be called Thompson's intellectual equals. Yet his name is far better know today in Munich — where any taxi driver can direct you to his statue on the Maximilianstrasse — than it is in his native land.

But let us begin at the beginning. Benjamin Thompson first saw the light of day on March 26, 1753 in a two-story, gambrel-roofed North Woburn farmhouse which still stands today. In later life he was wont to give glamor to his past by claiming descent from a long line of provincial aristocrats; but this was falsification, for the unvarnished fact is that the family was of simple and impoverished farming stock. Benjamin's father died when he was still an infant — and after only the most rudimentary local schooling, the boy was apprenticed at the age of 13 to a storekeeper in the town of Salem.

Even at this early age, however, Benjamin was beginning to evidence a remarkable intellectual curiosity — nourished, it appears, by his friendship with a somewhat older neighboring youth named Loammi Baldwin, who was later to achieve fame on his own as a civil engineer and as the originator of the Baldwin apple. Together the two boys organized what they were pleased to call a "scientific society," devoting themselves to such varied pursuits as calculating eclipses and trying to invent a perpetual motion machine. By the time Benjamin was serving his apprenticeship in Salem we find him addressing to his friend and mentor back in Woburn such ambitious questions as: "Please to give the nature, essence, beginnings of, existence, and rise of the wind in general — with the whole theory thereof, so as to be able to answer all questions relative thereto" and "Please to inform me in what manner fire operates upon clay, to change the colour from the natural colour to red and from red to black, and how it operates upon silver to change it to blue." And a year or two later, when he had been dismissed from his place in Salem and had become apprentice to another storekeeper in Boston, we find him walking twice a week out to Cambridge, where another friend had obtained for him special permission to attend lectures on natural science and astronomy at Harvard.

Understandably enough, these interests soon led him from storekeeping, a pursuit for which he had neither aptitude nor interest, to school teaching — and it was this, curiously enough, which opened the door to fame and fortune. The town of Rumford, New Hampshire — later Concord — needed a new schoolmaster, and the minister there (who had come originally from Woburn) happened to hear of the ambitious lad from his home town. So at the age of 19, with no money in his pocket and wearing the only suit of clothes he owned, Benjamin Thompson walked from Boston to Concord to begin a new life.

Now it happened that only a few months before this, the leading citizen of Concord — one Colonel Rolfe — had died, leaving behind a huge estate and an attractive, socially ambitious widow of 30. Young Benjamin, six feet tall, strikingly handsome in his suit of clothes, and possessing by now a degree of self-injected polish and sophistication which belied his humble background — struck Mrs. Rolfe as the answer to a widow's prayers, even though he was 11 years her junior. Less than six months after he arrived in Concord they were married — and the country schoolmaster settled down to the life of a country gentleman.

But this, for a youth of Thompson's consuming ambition, was only a beginning. Through his wife's family, he soon obtained an introduction to John Wentworth, the royal governor of New Hampshire; and through Wentworth, who was captivated by his flattery and quick intelligence, Thompson obtained a commission as a major in the New Hampshire Second Provincial Regiment. This new advancement came at a fateful time, for the rumblings of revolt were already audible throughout the British colonies; and Thompson, as an aloof and suddenly well-to-do protégé of the royal governor, promptly became an object of intense suspicion to the colonial patriots in the local Committee of Correspondence. In 1774 the committee accused him of relaying information about their activities to the British authorities, a charge which he denied in vain. Threatened with tar and feathers, Thompson decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Leaving his wife and infant daughter behind, he fled from Concord, never to come back.

Returning to his birthplace in Woburn, he tried to obtain a commission in the Continental Army, only to be rejected because the New Hampshire officers, still suspecting him of loyalist sympathies, refused to serve with him. Once again he was investigated by a rebel committee, and once again he protested his innocence; but he was a marked man, and finally he found no alternative but to go behind the British lines into Boston, which was then under siege by the colonists. When Boston was evacuated by the British, General Gage sent a commission of four men back to London explain his retreat — and strangely enough, Benjamin Thompson was one of the four entrusted with this important mission.

In point of fact, there was nothing strange about it; for we now know that Thompson was indeed a loyalist spy, that he served in this capacity for Governor Wentworth while in Concord, and that he subsequently sent coded intelligence messages through British lines to General Gage even while he was trying to enlist in the Continental Army and was vigorously protesting his innocence to the Committees of Correspondence. The truth of the matter did not come out until 160 years later, when the relevant documents were published in England.

In any event, Thompson's reputation as an espionage agent assured him a warm reception in London, where George III's corrupt colonial secretary, the notorious (and stridently homosexual) Lord Germain, was in urgent need of reliable intelligence about affairs in America. A ruthless politician who had been cashiered from the British Army for cowardice, Germain was favorably impressed by the opportunistic young man from the colonies and decided to make him his protégé and private informer. Within a short time Thompson — now aged 22 — was installed as colonial undersecretary for Carolina and Georgia with the additional title of chief inspector for all supplies sent to the British military forces in America. This combination of posts, larded with the generous quantities of graft available to high officials in that time and place, provided Thompson with an income that was rumored to amount to some 7,000 pounds a year — an enormous sum in those days.

But Germain's young protégé was not content to limit himself to the role of sycophantic courtier. He used his positions not only to enrich himself but also to indulge the intense interest in scientific pursuits which his espionage activities had interrupted. In order to standardize the explosives which he was sending to the King's forces in America he embarked upon extensive research into the explosive force and firepower of gunpowder, creating a variety of ingenious apparatuses that were the first effective measuring devices ever developed for this purpose.  His work during this period established him as one of the principal pioneers in the modern science of ballistics.

Once again, however, Thompson's penchant for the cloak and the dagger brought him to the brink of disaster. For at the very time that he was winning fame and fortune as a colonial administrator and ballistics expert he was also secretly conniving with agents of the French government to sell them confidential information about the British fleet. The principal agent, a Frenchman named LaMotte, was caught, tried, and publicly drawn and quartered; but Thompson was spared through the intervention of Lord Germain, who managed to blackmail the Lord of the Admiralty out of having his protégé arrested. Nonetheless, it became desirable for Thompson to leave England post haste, and to this end he had himself appointed lieutenant colonel of a regiment of the King's American Dragoons which had not yet been raised. Two months later he was in Long Island, then occupied by the British, where he somehow managed to raise enough men to bring the unit to full compliment — and, indeed, to arrange a gala commissioning ceremony at which the Prince of Wales himself was on hand to present the regimental colors. It was not, however, and excursion that brought him any military glory. Save for one minor skirmish, his dragoons saw no action, and when he returned to England the following year he was remembered on Long Island not for any battlefield exploits but only for the assorted indignities which he inflicted upon the inhabitants of Huntington, where he had made the church into a stable and the graveyard into a campsite.

His stay in England this time was brief, for the very good reason that he had accumulated too many enemies to feel safe there. Pausing only long enough to have himself appointed a full colonel — a promotion which enabled him to retire from the British Army with a liberal pension — Thompson embarked for the Continent with the aim of becoming a soldier of fortune. The channel crossing, incidentally, he made in company with Edward Gibbon, the historian, who dubbed him "Mr. Secretary, Colonel, Admiral, Philosopher Thompson." Making his way in leisurely fashion toward Austria, where he hoped to offer his services to the emperor, Thompson happened to pass through Strasbourg at the time when Prince Maximilian of Deux-Ponts was preparing to review the troops of the garrison. Once again Thompson's opportunistic instincts came to the fore. Appearing on the parade ground on a white charger in the resplendent uniform of a colonel in the King's Dragoons, he caught the eye of the prince and was invited to join the royal reviewing party. The following day he was en route to Munich, armed with a glowing letter of introduction to Prince Maximilian's uncle, Karl Theodore, the elector of Bavaria.

Karl Theodor, as it turned out, was even more dazzled by this handsome 30-year-old soldier-scientist than Maximilian had been — so dazzled, indeed that he promptly offered him a post as his special military aide and confidential advisor. Characteristically, Thompson not only accepted this offer but simultaneously made arrangements with the British ambassador in Vienna to play both sides of the fence by serving as a secret agent for England in Bavaria. As payment in advance for these services, he returned to England long enough to be knighted by George III before taking up his new duties.

The years that followed made Thompson famous throughout Europe. As the elector's most trusted aide, he became the Bavarian minister of war, minister of the interior, and finally, the prime minister. Armed with broad authority, he set about reorganizing the country's weak and demoralized army until it had become a highly effective fighting force — a feat which he accomplished with a host of reforms ranging from higher pay and better rations to a far-flung program of vocational schooling and organized sports competitions. Most celebrated of all was his use of one entire army corps to transform a huge, swampy wasteland on the outskirts of Munich into the famous Englischer Garten — still regarded as one of the most beautiful public parks in the world.

Meanwhile, Thompson was gaining wide renown as a social reformer by establishing a truly remarkable system of workhouses for the poor. Munich, at that time, was notorious throughout Europe for its extraordinary number of beggars, who were organized into gangs and menaced honest citizens with virtual impunity. So entrenched was this evil that mendicant parents often deliberately maimed or blinded their children in order to make them more pitiful objects of itinerant charity. Appalled by this situation, Thompson devised a plan to combat it in his role as minister of the interior. In one day, he caused every beggar in Munich to be rounded up and arrested — but instead of putting them in jail he lodged them in a huge building which had been specifically set aside for this purpose and which he called the House of Industry. Here the beggars were provided with warm clothes, clean quarters and wholesome meals, and were put to work at reasonable wages, making shoes and uniforms for the Army. Meanwhile the juvenile beggars, who were housed in the building along with their parents, were required to attend special schools conducted on the premises — quite possibly the first compulsory public schooling anywhere in the world. The program was a spectacular success. Mendicancy in Munich was eradicated, several thousand former beggars were taught useful trades, and the government turned a profit by supplying clothing to its Army at minimum cost. In gratitude, the Elector made Thompson a count of the Holy Roman Empire; and thus at the age of 38, the former farm boy from Woburn assumed the title of Count Rumford.

But even these remarkable exploits would not have made Rumford a figure of importance today had it not been for the scientific work which he carried on while in the elector's service. For many years he had been intensely interested in the question of heat — what its actual nature was, and why it reacted as it did on different substances. The scientists of Rumford's day thought that they had established the answers beyond dispute, for they were uniformly committed to the so-called "caloric theory," which regarded heat as a fluid which existed in finite and measurable amounts. This theory Rumford made bold to demolish; and by a series of complex and ingenious experiments he established that heat was in fact not a material substance but, in his own words, "nothing but a vibratory motion taking place among the particles of a body." The theory was not wholly original with Rumford, but the proof of it was; and our conception of the nature of heat today is approximately the same as the conception which Rumford, in defiance of all prevailing expert opinion, enunciated 170 years ago.

As a scientist, Rumford was distinguished not only for his originality. He also was almost unique for his time in the degree to which both the theoretical and practical questions captured his interest. His inquiries into the nature of heat, for example, prompted him to develop a variety of practical devices that many of us probably think of as modern inventions. He invented the double boiler, the pressure cooker, the drip coffee maker and the thermos bottle. He constructed for his Munich work houses the world's first kitchen ranges — a great step forward in an age when all cooking was done over open fires. He made the first systematic studies of the relative heating values of various types of fuels. He developed the first steam radiator and designed the world's first central heating system. He discovered and named the phenomenon known as convection currents — and from this knowledge he not only developed the first fireplace damper but revolutionized the design of the standard fireplace and chimney so successfully that no basic improvements have been made upon his work to this day.

From experimenting with heat it was an easy step to experimenting with lighting — a project which, again, had extremely practical overtones for Rumford as a means of making the operation of his workhouse factories in Munich more efficient. In order to measure the intensity of any light source he developed an ingenious device which is still known today as the Rumford photometer; and in order to establish a standard method of referring to intensities of light, he originated, named and defined the basic unit of candlepower which subsequently was adopted throughout the world. Nor did his concern for increasing the efficiency of his workhouses limit itself to research in heating and lighting. In his eagerness to find methods of providing his workhouse inmates — and his army personnel — with a diet which would be at once healthy and as economical as possible, he conducted exhaustive experiments into the relative nutritional value of various foods. Today, indeed, he is often described as the father of the science of nutrition.

By 1795 Rumford was celebrated throughout Europe as a soldier, statesman and scientist. But in Munich his stock was slipping. Even if he had been blessed with a generous and amiable personality, the inordinate influence which he wielded over the elector would have aroused jealousy in the Bavarian court. The fact that he was actually a man of extreme vanity and arrogance made it that much worse. When he found that his enemies in the court were becoming too numerous and too well-organized to combat, he decided that the time had come to again take flight. The elector Karl Theodor tried to ease the blow by appointing Rumford minister to England — but King George became enraged at the idea that one of his own subjects, and one who had been accused to spying on the British at that, should come to London as the envoy of a foreign government. The upshot was that Rumford was not allowed to present his credentials, and the count became, at the age of 50, a man without a country.

At this juncture his restless mind turned to thoughts of his native land; and to this end he proposed to Rufus King, the American ambassador in London, that he would be just the person to set up a United States military academy comparable to one he had established in Bavaria for the training of Army officers. That Rumford, a former loyalist officer and anti-Revolutionary spy, should have seriously made such a proposal seems astonishing; but even more astonishing was the fact that President Adams welcomed the suggestion and authorized the U.S. War Department to proceed with it. Happily, while Rumford was haggling with the department over the terms of the arrangement, Rufus King made a belated check on Thompson's background. The British government, still eager for revenge against the count for his former double dealings, confided to King the full nature of Rumford's espionage activities, and the negotiations were brought to a hasty end.

Rumford was permitted to remain in England as a private citizen, and for the next few years he devoted himself to the life of a wealthy gentleman-scientist, publishing numerous scientific papers and establishing — largely at his own expense — the Royal Institution, which was the world's first museum of science and, despite bitter birth pangs brought on by the Count's contemptuous attitude toward fellow researchers, was eventually to become a vital force for the advancement of learning. But in England, as in Bavaria, his knack for collecting enemies soon made the atmosphere oppressive. In 1804 he left London forever, and went to Paris. Here he was lionized by Napoleon, whose admiration for Rumford's achievements in the field of ballistics overruled the suspicions engendered by the fact that France was now at war with both Britain and Bavaria.

Here, also, Rumford met and courted the rich and fascinating Countess Lavoisier whose husband, the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, had been guillotined during the Terror. Rumford's first wife in New Hampshire, whom he had abandoned some 30 years before without any apparent regret, had long since died, so the Count was free to marry again. His marriage to the Countess Lavoisier was, in the words of one biographer, the union of the two most glamorous figures of the day. But his many enemies regarded it more cynically. One London newspaper reported it in the following brief item:
Married: In Paris, Count Rumford to the widow of Lavoisier; by which nuptial experiment he obtains a fortune of 8,000 pounds per annum — the most effective of all the Rumfordizing projects for keeping a house warm.
Rather predictably, the marriage of these two strong-willed persons turned out to be a domestic disaster. The end came when Rumford, enraged that his wife had arranged a dinner party without consulting him, caused his gatekeeper to lock the guests out of the grounds of their Paris house — and the Countess, in revenge, put the kitchen staff to work pouring vats of boiling water over a rose garden that was Rumford's pride and joy. The couple separated amid a welter of public charges and counter-charges, the Count generously settling for only half of his wife's fortune. The Count's only offspring resulting from this marriage was a son — born to the daughter of Madame Lavoisier's gardener.

The few remaining year's of Rumford's life were spent quietly in Paris amid his books, his scientific apparatus, and his gardens. When he died, in 1814, his will provided that the bulk of his estate was to go to Harvard College to endow a chair in physics which still bears his name. His grave, in a small cemetery outside Paris, is still cared for by Harvard in honor of his achievements and his legacy.

Here, you will agree, was a most extraordinary man whose life was filled with achievements that should have guaranteed him an undisputed place in history's hall of fame. In intellectual versatility and scientific creativity he was at least the equal of his esteemed contemporary, Benjamin Franklin. At the apex of his career, his name was a household word in much of the civilized world. Why, then, is he known today only to a few scientists and historians together with a sprinkling of individuals who have stumbled across his path as accidentally as I did? The answer seems to lie largely in Rumford's haughty, amoral and antisocial attitude toward those around him. His contemporaries, with very few exceptions, found his personality so disagreeable that they gave him as little credit for his work as possible when he was alive and forgot him as soon as possible after he died. In a singularly candid eulogy delivered to the French Academy shortly after Rumford's death, the naturalist Baron Cuvier remarked upon the Count's personal vanity and added: "The world is so constituted that a certain height of perfection often seems to it a defect, when the person does not take as much pains to conceal his knowledge as he has taken to acquire it."

Recently Sanborn C. Brown, a physicist at M.I.T., addressed himself to this same riddle of Count Rumford's undeserved obscurity. "In digging out the facts of his story," he concluded,
we find that Rumford's scientific and technological contributions loom very large. We can learn a great deal of the methodology of physics and engineering by a study of his work. A more important lesson, however, is to learn from the story of his life that the really lasting impression a man may make upon history depends as much on his contributions to society in terms of his own character and values as it does on the magnitude of his purely scientific achievements.
Vrest Orton, the late Yankee antiquarian whose country store in Weston, Vermont, many of you may know, expanded on the same theme a few years ago in a delightful monograph entitled The Forgotten Art of Building a Good Fireplace. Benjamin Thompson was scratched from the scrolls of history, says Orton, not only because he was unpatriotic, unprincipled and generally unpleasant, but also because, unlike Benjamin Franklin, he didn't publish an autobiography, which is a powerful way to get one's side of the story on the record. Actually, Thompson began such an undertaking, but on a journey to England in 1795 his private papers and notes for the story of his life were stolen from his postchaise and never recovered.

One further thought on all this, and then I shall let you go. In contemplating the lives of geniuses in the arts and the sciences, one is repeatedly struck by the fact that the greatest outcroppings of creativity seem to have occurred during periods of social and political upheaval, when one might reasonably expect instead a stifling of intellectualism. The Napoleonic era, in which original spirits like Rumford and Franklin — not to mention such giants in the arts as Beethoven — coexisted with general chaos and mass butchery in the public sphere, is a striking case in point. Our own bloody 20th century, which has produced unparalleled scientific advances against a backdrop of political chaos, may qualify as another.

I was reminded of this again last week while watching on television "The Third Man," a 1949 Graham Greene story best remembered by most people for its Third Man Theme. At one point in the movie, the charming but totally unscrupulous central character, Harry Lime, rationalizes his cynicism by speaking of the Italy of the Medicis and the Borgias — a setting of tyranny, corruption and licentiousness in which cruelty and avarice reigned supreme, and which nonetheless produced contemporaneously such creative titans as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Compare that, says Harry Lime, with Switzerland: "Five centuries of peace and democracy and stability that produced nothing greater than the cuckoo clock."

I've never quite understood the reasons for this anomaly. Perhaps someone here tonight can provide them.

1 comment:

  1. You should write the book. It would make a terrific movie, but be prepared for Hollywood to overlook Rumford's worst qualities and turn him into an anti-hero.