Benjamin Thompson played a part in the American Revolution and the revolution in thermodynamics – and then became the German Count Rumford, taking his name from a New Hampshire town.
Often compared with another Benjamin — Franklin — he came from Woburn, not Boston, and sided with the King, not the rebels.
Like Franklin, Benjamin Thompson invented prolifically and won wide acclaim for his involvement with European governments. Like Franklin, he made important discoveries about heat and light. He also invented the Rumford fireplace along the same lines as the Franklin stove.
England gave him a knighthood and the Holy Roman Empire elevated him to Count Rumford. He reorganized the Bavarian army and set up workhouses for the poor in Munich. He also came up with an industrial furnace, thermal underwear, a drip coffeepot and a cheap, nutritious soup for poor people.
Central European armies used his soup recipe well into the 20th century to feed their soldiers. The soldiers may not have appreciated his efforts.
Benjamin Thompson was born on March 26, 1753 in Woburn, Mass. He attended the village school, though he sometimes joined his friend Loammi Baldwin at Harvard College to listen to Professor John Winthrop. He later endowed a professorship at Harvard.
At 13, he was apprenticed to a Salem merchant. Later he became apprenticed to a Woburn doctor.
He had dim career prospects in 1772 until he met and married a rich widow, Sarah Rolfe. She had inherited property in Rumford (now Concord), N.H. They moved to Portsmouth, N.H., and Thompson was named a major in the New Hampshire militia through his wife’s connections.
When the revolution broke out, he took the Loyalist side. A mob burned his house, and he fled to the British lines, permanently abandoning his wife.
While aiding the British, he conducted experiments on the force of gunpowder, which won him celebrity as a scientist. When the British troops evacuated Boston, he was charged with giving an account of what happened to Lord George Sackville, secretary of state for North America in Lord North’s cabinet. Sackville was impressed with Thompson and named him undersecretary.
When the North government fell in 1782 – and Sackville took the blame for losing the war — Thompson joined the army. In 1785, he ended up in Munich.
Thompson spent the next 11 years in Munich as an aide to Prince Elector Charles Theodore. He had charge of the police and the war department, where he equipped the army and improved discipline. He established the Englischer Garden in Munich, one of the world’s largest urban parks.
All the while he experimented with heat and light.
Thompson was elevated to Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791, He took the name Rumford from the town where he married.
During the 1790s, Count Rumford worked on improving fireplaces. He invented a tall, shallow fireplace with angled walls that reflect heat into the room. He also restricted the chimney opening to increase the updraught.
The Rumford fireplace then became a sensation in London, and Count Rumford became world famous. Thomas Jefferson installed a Rumford fireplace at Monticello.
Count Rumford also invented a stove. Known as the Rumford stove, it competed with the Franklin stove for many years.
In Munich, Count Rumford had the task of removing the throngs of annoying beggars from the streets. A glowing account of his success appeared in Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad, by Anna Brownell Jameson.
There are no poor laws at Munich, no mendicity societies, no tract, and soup, and blanket charities; yet pauperism, mendicity, and starvation are nearly unknown. For the system of regulations by which these evils have been repressed, or altogether remedied, I believe Bavaria is indebted to the celebrated American, Count Rumford.
Thompson ordered the beggars taken to the magistrate. The magistrate said they couldn’t beg anymore. However, they would have everything necessary for their subsistence at the new workhouse. There they found apartments, tools and food (presumably Rumford’s Soup), and earned money for piecework. The workhouse then started to make money.
The Supplement to the Connecticut Courant on March 9, 1832 includes a story about the beggars’ gratitude for the workhouse. Thompson had taken ill, the story goes. From his sickbed he heard the sound of the poor marching in a procession to church to pray for his recovery. It affected him deeply, as he was Protestant and the poor were Catholic.
Thompson came up with the recipe for Rumford’s Soup because the Bavarian government wanted a cheap, nutritious ration for prisoners and the poor. It isn’t particularly good. Rumford’s Soup was used as a base for military rations in Central Europe during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
From 1799 he spent the rest of his life in England and France, dying in Paris on Aug. 21, 1814. In his will, he endowed a professorship at Harvard, the Rumford Chair of Physics. Then in 1847, Harvard elected Eben Norton Horsford to the chair, and he later invented Rumford Baking Powder. Horsford and a partner made the stuff in a section of East Providence, R.I., now known as Rumford.
The Benjamin Thompson House-Count Rumford Birthplace is now a museum in Woburn.
And here’s the recipe for Rumford’s Soup:
1 part pearl barley
1 part dried (yellow) peas
4 parts potato
salt according to need
Old, sour beer (or vinegar).
Slowly boil until thick. Eat with bread.
This story updated in 2023. By Daderot at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8725711. Rumford Soup By Gestumblindi – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15000635. Rumford fireplace By Alcinoe – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12057362. Rumford Baking Powder By Lou Sander – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30578011.