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Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford
(26 Mar 1753 - 21 Aug 1814)

American-British physicist.


Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford

Physicist

by Edwin E. Slosson

from Leading American Men of Science (1910)

[p.9] The life of a scholar is apt to be a quiet one, externally devoid of dramatic incidents and sudden changes of fortune, but there is material enough to satisfy a writer of historical romances in the life of the poor New England boy who became, in England, cavalry colonel, Under Secretary of State and Sir Benjamin Thompson; in Bavaria, Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, Privy Councilor, Minister of War, Chief of Police and Chamberlain to the Elector Palatine; in Paris, husband of a femme savante of a French Salon; and who died alone and friendless in the city where he had been honored by Napoleon while living, and was eulogized by Cuvier when dead. The name of the New England town which persecuted him as a traitor he made known and honored throughout the world; he left his fortune to the country he fought. England owes to him the Royal Institution, as we owe our similar Smithsonian Institution to an Englishman. In Munich he had a monument erected in his honor while yet alive for his philanthropic work, and was lampooned by the press of London for doing the same work there. As an intellectual free lance he did service in as many different realms of science as he did military service in different countries. He laid the first foundation of the greatest generalization the human mind has yet conceived, the law of the conservation of energy, and he explained the construction of coffee-pots. He was in action and thought a paradoxical philosopher.

[p.10] Benjamin Thompson was born March 25, 1753, at Woburn, Mass., in the farmhouse of his grandfather Ebenezer Thompson. The house is still standing, preserved as a museum by the Rumford Historical Association. He was a descendant of James Thompson who came to New England with Governor Winthrop in 1630, and was one of the first settlers of Woburn.

A few months after his birth his father died at the age of 26, thus leaving him to the care of his mother and grandfather. Just three years after the birth of Benjamin his mother married Josiah Pierce, Jr., of Woburn, who received from his guardian an allowance of two shillings and fivepence per week until the boy was seven years old. To the apparent misfortune of thus being deprived at an early age of both paternal care and patrimony he owed his European career. As he said in later years to his friend, Professor Pictet of Geneva:

“If the death of my father had not, contrary to the order of nature, preceded that of my grandfather who gave all his property to my uncle, his second son, I should have lived and died an American husbandman. It was a circumstance purely accidental, which, while I was an infant, decided my destiny in attracting my attention to the object of science. The father of one of my companions, a very respectable minister, and, besides, very enlightened (by name Barnard), gave me his friendship, and of his own prompting, undertook to instruct me. He taught me algebra, geometry, astronomy and even the higher mathematics. Before the age of fourteen, I had made sufficient progress in this class of studies to be able, without his aid and even without his knowledge, to calculate and trace correctly the elements of a solar eclipse. We observed it together, and my computation was correct within four seconds. I shall never forget the intense pleasure which this success afforded me, nor the praises which it drew from him. I had been destined for trade, but after a short trial, my thirst for knowledge became inextinguishable, and I would not apply myself to anything but my favorite objects of study.”

This account of his early education confirms the legends of his birthplace that the young Benjamin Thompson was somewhat indifferent to the routine duties of the farm and the shop and inclined to devote a larger proportion of his time to scientific experiments [p.11] and diversions in mathematics than his guardians and employers thought proper in an apprentice. But in spite of the variety of his pursuits, he seems to have done his work well and to have made good use of what schooling he could get. His teacher at Woburn was John Fowle, a graduate of Harvard College in 1747.

In the year 1766 he was apprenticed to John Appleton of Salem, an importer of British goods and retailer of general merchandise. It was here he was brought under the influence of the Rev. Thomas Barnard, minister of the First Church of Salem, and a man of unusual scholarship and ability. Thompson’s accounts and letters at this time show him to be accurate, orderly and skilful in the use of the pen. He engraved a book-plate for himself with a very elaborate heraldic device combining, in the common symbolism of the day, an all-seeing eye, a ship, books, square and compass, sword and a couchant lion. His friend Baldwin writes of him:

“He employed as much of his time, as he could by any means steal from the duties of his station, to amuse himself with study and little, ingenious, mechanical recreations, and would be more frequently found with a penknife, file and gimlet under the counter, than with his pen and account books in the counting room.”

Benjamin Thompson was no exception to the old saying that no man ever became a great physicist who did not attempt to invent a machine for perpetual motion in his youth, for he walked one night from Salem to Woburn to show Baldwin a contrivance of wheels and levers which he thought would solve the problem of perpetual motion.

While he was at Salem the news of the repeal of the Stamp Act was received, but young Thompson took less interest in its effect upon the importation business in which he was engaged than he did in the opportunity of making some chemical experiments with materials furnished at the expense of the public. But in grinding together the ingredients of the powder for his homemade rockets, the mixture exploded, severely burning his face and breast and temporarily destroying his sight. This accident [p.12] did not discourage him, for throughout his life he retained an interest in explosives to which, both in England and Bavaria, he devoted much attention. His letters to his most intimate friend, Loammi Baldwin, afterwards colonel in the Revolutionary Army and engineer of the Middlesex Canal, indicate the extent and diversity of his scientific curiosity.


Woburn, Aug. 14,1769.
“Mr. Loammi Baldwin,

Sir: Please to give me Direction of the Rays of Light from a Luminous Body to an Opake and the Reflection from the Opake Body to another equally Dense and Opake; viz. the Direction of the Rays of the Luminous Body to that of the Opake and the direction of rays by reflection to the other Opake Body.

“Yours, etc.,
“Benjamin Thompson.

“N. B.—From the Sun to the Earth Reflected to the Moon at an angle of 40 degrees.”

In 1769 Thompson was apprenticed as clerk to Hopestill Capen, a dry goods dealer in Boston, but his employer having entered into the boycott of British goods, he had little to do and in a few months returned to his house in Woburn where “he was received by his acquaintances with unwelcome pity, as an unfortunate young man, who could not fix his mind on any regular employment, and would never be able to support himself, or afford any consolation to his friends.”

His stay in Boston, although short, was utilized in acquiring some of the accomplishments which afterwards proved of so much use to him in the courts of Europe. He took lessons in French every evening, except Sunday, practiced drawing and engraving, played on the violin, rehearsed plays and exercised with the back sword. At the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770, he is said to have been in the midst of the crowd, sword in hand, eager for an attack upon the British troops which a few years later he was to lead against his own countrymen.

Freed from imprisonment in the shop, Thompson, now seventeen, spent the next two years in the study of medicine and natural [p.13] philosophy, and in teaching school at Wilmington and Bradford. The program of daily duties that he drew up for himself is so characteristic of the methodical and industrious disposition of his whole life as to be worth quoting;

“From eleven to six, Sleep. Get up at six o’clock and wash my hands and face. From six to eight, exercise one half and study one half. From eight till ten, Breakfast, attend Prayers, etc. From ten to twelve, Study all the time. From twelve to one, Dine, etc. From one to four, study constantly. From four to five, Relieve my mind by some diversion or Exercise. From five till Bedtime, follow what my inclination leads me to; whether it be to go abroad, or stay at home and read either Anatomy, Physic or Chemistry, or any other book I want to Peruse.”

He later obtained by the influence of some Boston friends the privilege of attending the lectures of Professor Winthrop on experimental philosophy at Harvard College, and every day he and his friend Baldwin walked eight miles from Woburn to Cambridge, and on their return repeated the experiments in mechanics and electricity with apparatus of their own construction. That the two boys were not so completely absorbed in abstract science as to be oblivious to the attractions of the road is proved by their discovery on a hillside farm in Medford of an apple-tree bearing fruit of superior quality, which was afterwards cultivated by Colonel Baldwin, introduced by Count Rumford into Europe and is still known as the “Baldwin apple.”

How much Count Rumford appreciated the help he got from Harvard College is shown by his bequeathing to that institution the reversion of his whole estate, to found a professorship “to teach the utility of the physical and mathematical sciences for the improvement of the useful arts, and for the extension of the industry, prosperity, happiness and well being of Society.” Dr. Jacob Bigelow was first elected to the Rumford Professorship in 1816. His successors have been Daniel Treadwell, Eben Horsford, Walcott Gibbs, and John Trowbridge.

The Rumford Fund for the support of this professorship now amounts to $56,368.73.

[p.14] Thompson’s third attempt at school teaching resulted in a decided change of fortune, for he was called to a town which was to give him a name, a wife and a fortune, the town now known as Concord, New Hampshire, but which had been incorporated in 1733 as Rumford, Essex County, Massachusetts. Here again we may, with advantage, quote his own words as reported by Pictet:

“I was then launched at the right time upon a world which was almost strange to me, and I was obliged to form the habit of thinking and acting for myself and of depending on myself for a livelihood. My ideas were not yet fixed; one project succeeded another and perhaps I should have acquired a habit of indecision and inconstancy, perhaps I should have been poor and unhappy all my life, if a woman had not loved me—if she had not given me a subsistence; a home and an independent fortune. I married, or rather was married at the age of nineteen. I espoused the widow of a Col. Rolfe, daughter of the Rev. Mr. Walker, a highly respectable minister and one of the first settlers of Rumford.”

Sarah Walker had married at the age of thirty Colonel Benjamin Rolfe, twice her age, one of the richest and most important men of the country, who had died two years later, leaving her with one son, afterwards Colonel Paul Rolfe. Since she was some thirteen years older than Benjamin Thompson, and so far above the penniless school teacher in social position, it is probable that, as he intimates, she took the initiative in the affair and exercised the privilege of a princess towards a lover of low degree. She took him to Boston before their marriage in the chaise of the late husband (noted in Concord history as the first carriage brought into the place) and gave him an opportunity of indulging for the first time his fondness for fine clothes, for his outfit included a scarlet coat. They drove back through the villlage of Woburn, and stopping at his mother’s door, she came out and exclaimed: “Why, Ben, my child, how could you go and spend your whole winter’s wages in this way?”

Their wedding tour was taken in the fall of 1772 to Portsmouth near which was a grand military review of the Second Provincial Regiment of New Hampshire. Thompson’s fine appearance on horseback as one of the spectators attracted the attention of [p.15] Governor Wentworth. His wife introduced him to the governor, and he made such a favorable impression by his readiness in conversation and wide information that he was soon after appointed a major in the regiment. Nothing could have been more suited to Thompson’s ambitions, but it brought misfortune upon him in two ways; it offended the other officers that a youth of nineteen, without military experience, should have been thus placed over them, and the marked favor shown him by the governor caused him to be suspected by the patriots as a tool of the Royalists. It was in fact this spite and suspicion that drove him from America.

Young Thompson entered into his new rτle of landed proprietor with his usual zeal and energy, introducing new seeds imported from London, and taking an active part in the politics and development of the colony. He broached a scheme for the survey of the White Mountains to Governor Wentworth who not only approved it, but offered to accompany the expedition in person. But it was never carried out, for already more serious affairs were on foot. Thompson’s growing popularity with the governor, and his own undeniably aristocratic tendencies combined to render him a suspect by the ardent patriots of the vicinity. In the summer of 1774 he was summoned before the patriotic committee to answer to the charge of “being unfriendly to the cause of liberty,” the chief complaint being that he was in correspondence with General Gage in Boston and had returned to him four deserters. He made a satisfactory explanation of his conduct and sentiments and was discharged, but the suspicions were not removed from the minds of his enemies, and since formal and semi-legal proceedings had failed, they resorted to violence. One November night a mob surrounded the Rolfe mansion and demanded Major Thompson, but he, receiving an intimation of the attack and knowing the impossibility of proving his innocence to an impassioned mob, had borrowed a horse and $20 from his brother-in-law and escaped to Woburn. He wrote to the Rev. Walker, his father-inlaw, that he “never did, nor, let my treatment be what it will, ever will do any action that may have the most distant tendency to [p.16] injure the true interests of this my native country.” It is quite conceivable, however, that his definition of “true interests” may have differed even at this time, from that of the ardent bands of Tory-hunters then scouring the country.

On May 16, 1775, he was again arrested “upon suspicion of being inimical to the liberties of this country” and was kept in prison for two weeks, when he was formally acquitted by the “Committee of Correspondence for the Town of Woburn” with the verdict that they “do not find that the said Thompson in any one instance has shown a Disposition unfriendly to American Liberty, but that his general behavior has evinced the direct contrary.”

He tried to get an appointment in the Continental Army and secured an interview with Washington, but the New Hampshire officers over whom he had been promoted exerted too powerful an influence against him. Nevertheless, during his stay at Woburn he made himself as useful as he was allowed to in the organization of the army. In company with Major Baldwin he inspected the fortifications on Bunker Hill and he spent some time drilling the troops and designing uniforms.

But finding it impossible to secure a position in the American army, and equally impossible, at least for one of his adventurous disposition, to remain neutral and idle in such stirring times, he decided to seek in the British army the military career he coveted and, nearly a year after he had been driven from his home in Concord, he left Woburn for Boston. Here he was received with a welcome from the British very strongly in contrast to the coldness of his countrymen, and, in spite of his youth and inexperience, he soon rose into the confidence of the authorities. Upon the evacuation of Boston he was sent to England to convey the news, and so severed his connection with his native land. He never saw his wife again; the daughter whom he left as an infant twice visited him in Europe when a grown woman.

His early biographers put themselves to much trouble to explain and apologize for his action in thus siding with the enemies of his country, but now, when the descendants of the Loyalists [p.17] show no less pride in their ancestry than the Sons of the Revolution, we can see the situation in fairer perspective, and, although we may disapprove of his decision and regret the loss to America of another Franklin, we must realize that it was fortunate both for Thompson and the world that his peculiar genius found in Europe a field for its development that America could not have afforded.

On leaving America he wrote to his father-in-law, the Rev. Walker of Concord:

“Though I foresee and realize the distress, poverty and wretchedness that must unavoidably attend my Pilgrimage in unknown lands, destitute of fortune, friends, and acquaintances, yet all these evils appear to me more tolerable than the treatment which I met with from the hands of mine ungrateful countrymen.”

If this really represents Benjamin Thompson’s anticipations on going to England, it cannot be said that he displayed his usual foresight, for he rapidly rose to a position of wealth, power and esteem there. The government was suffering severely from lack of information on conditions in America. Sir George Germain, the Colonial Secretary of State, in their first interview recognized the knowledge and ability of this young man of twenty-three, and gave him a place in the Colonial Office, admitting him as a member of his own household.

Science was never to Thompson a mental divertisement, but was always intimately associated with his daily duties. Since he was now engaged in improving the military efficiency of the army, he devoted his attention to the study of the action of gunpowder, “to determine the most advantageous situation for the vent in fire-arms, and to measure the velocities of bullets and the recoil under various circumstances. I had hopes, also, of being able to find out the velocity of the inflammation of gunpowder, and to measure its force more accurately than had hitherto been done.”

He persistently attacked by every means in his power the problems of explosives which Nobel, Abel, Berthelot, and Kellner have in recent years more successfully studied, chiefly along the lines indicated by him and, in part, using his apparatus. He laid the [p.18] foundation of the science of interior ballistics by an attempt to measure the explosive force of the gases produced by the explosion of gunpowder, inventing a machine which has ever since been known as “the Rumford Apparatus.” This consisted of a small steel mortar mounted vertically upon a bed of solid masonry. The Ό inch bore was closed by a steel hemisphere upon which weights were placed and these increased until they were no longer lifted by the force of the gunpowder exploded. To avoid loss of energy by the escape of gases through the vent, the powder was ignited by applying a red-hot iron ball to the lower end. He gradually increased the charge of powder, until an 8,000 pound cannon had to be used as a weight to counterbalance the force of the explosion, and then the barrel of the apparatus burst into halves. His numerical results were too high, but it was almost a century before better figures were obtained.

Rumford’s earlier experiments in England were mostly directed to the problems of external ballistics, especially to the determination of the velocity of the projectile under different charges and kinds of powders and methods of firing. For this purpose he first made use of the ballistic pendulum invented by Robins. The bullet was fired into a wooden target backed with iron and suspended so as to swing back freely when struck. By measuring the chord of the arc of its swing and knowing its weight and that of the bullet, the velocity of the bullet could be calculated.

Rumford improved upon this by measuring the momentum of the gun as well as the equal momentum of the bullet by suspending the gun itself as a pendulum by two cords. This not only gave another series of figures as a check to the former, but it was more accurate, because the movement of a large mass at low velocity can be more easily measured than of a small mass at high velocity.

In his later experiments in Munich he discarded the pendulum target and measured the velocity of the ball solely by the recoil of the gun, experimenting with brass cannon as large as twelve-pounders, in a building which he had erected for the purpose. He was never content with laboratory experiments, and to [p.19] continue his investigations on gunpowder, he volunteered to go on a cruise of the British fleet under Sir Charles Hardy, in 1779. As no enemy was encountered, he persuaded his friends among the captains “to make a number of experiments, and particularly by firing a greater number of bullets at once from their heavy guns than had ever been done before, and observing the distances at which they fell in the sea . . . which gave me much new light relative to the action of fired gunpowder.”

On this cruise also he devised a simpler and more systematic code of marine signals than that in use. Another result of this three months’ cruise was the plan of a swift copper-sheathed frigate.

When, on account of overwork, his health failed and he went to Bath to recuperate, he made a series of experiments on cohesion. These experiments introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, with whom he was afterwards associated in founding the Royal Institution, and in 1779 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Thompson rose rapidly in the Colonial Office, where he became Secretary for Georgia, inspector of all the clothing sent to America, and Under Secretary of State. About the time of the fall of his patron, Lord Germain, on account of the surrender of Cornwallis, he returned to a military career, and was made Lieutenant-Colonel of the King’s American Dragoons, a regiment of cavalry which he was to recruit on Long Island. His ship, however, was driven by storms to Charleston, South Carolina, where he reorganized the remains of the royal army under Colonel Leslie, and conducted a successful cavalry raid against Marion’s Brigade.

In the spring he arrived at Long Island, and by August 1, 1782, he got the King’s American Dragoons in shape to be inspected in their camp about three miles east of Flushing by Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, the third son of the King, and afterwards King William the Fourth. The royal cause was, however, hopeless, and the troops under Colonel Thompson did nothing during the year but exasperate the patriots among whom they were quartered. The inhabitants of Long Island preserved for more than one generation the memory of their depredations, [p.20] especially the destruction of a church and burying-ground in the construction of a fort near Huntington, where the tombstones were used for ovens and stamped the bread with their inscriptions.

Upon his return to England after the disbandment of the British forces, Thompson was made Colonel on half-pay for life, but there was no chance to make use of his military talents in the British service. Accordingly he determined to seek his fortune elsewhere and September 17, 1783, embarked at Dover for the continent. Upon the same boat happened to be Henry Laurens, a former President of the American Congress, recently released from the Tower, and the historian Gibbon who in his letters complains that the three spirited horses of “Mr. Secretary, Colonel, Admiral, Philosopher Thompson,” added to the distress of the Channel passage.

He intended to go to Vienna to volunteer in the Austrian army against the Turks, but a curious chance diverted him to Bavaria where he spent much of his life and rose to the highest attainable position. Here again, as in New Hampshire, he owed the beginning of his good fortune to his handsome appearance on horseback at a military parade. At Strasburg, Prince Maximilian of Deux-Ponts, afterwards Elector and King of Bavaria, but then major-general in the French service, while reviewing the troops noticed among the spectators an officer in a foreign uniform, mounted on a fine English horse, and spoke to him. When Thompson told him that he came from serving in the American war, the Prince replied that some of the French officers in his suite must have fought against him, pointing to the French officers who had been in the American Army at Yorktown. Becoming interested in his conversation, the Prince invited Colonel Thompson to dine with him and to meet his late foes. At the table maps were produced and they discussed the campaign until late, and the talk was resumed on the following day. The Prince was so taken with him that he gave him a cordial letter to his uncle, the Elector Palatine, Reigning Duke of Bavaria. He spent five days in Munich with the Elector who offered him such inducements to establish himself in Bavaria that, after visiting Vienna [p.21] and finding that there was to be no war against the Turks, he returned to England to get the permission necessary for a British officer to enter a foreign service. George the Third not only granted this, but also conferred upon him the honor of knighthood on February 23, 1784.

Karl Theodor, Elector Palatine, had, by succeeding to Bavaria, become the greatest prince in Germany, except the Emperor and the King of Prussia. Sir Benjamin Thompson entered his service as general aide-de-camp and colonel of a calvary regiment. He was assigned a palace in Munich with a military staff and servants.

For eleven years he served the Elector in a great variety of capacities, military and civil, and carried on scientific work in lines suggested by his occupations. Honors, titles and decorations to which he was not indifferent, he received in abundance from rulers and academies of science. The laws of Bavaria did not permit a foreigner to receive one of the orders of that country, but, at the request of the Elector, the King of Poland in 1786 conferred upon him the Order of St. Stanislaus. Two years later he was made major-general and Privy Councilor and Minister of War of Bavaria. In 1791 the Elector made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire with the Order of the White Eagle. He chose as his new name, Rumford, from the New Hampshire town which he had entered as a poor schoolmaster and left as a political refugee.

The city of Munich was not ungrateful for what Count Rumford did there. While he was in England the people erected a monument in his honor in the park still known as “the English Garden,” which he had reclaimed from a waste hunting-ground and made into a public pleasure resort. The inscription reads:

“To Him who rooted out the most scandalous of public evils, Idleness and Mendicity; who gave to the poor help, occupation and morals, and to the youth of the Fatherland so many schools of culture. Go, Passer-by, try to emulate him in thought and deed, and us in gratitude.”

A bronze statue of Count Rumford was erected in Munich by King Maximilian II and a replica of it costing $7,500 has been [p.22] placed in his birthplace, Woburn, Mass., bearing an inscription by President Eliot of Harvard.

Rumford found the Bavarian army most deficient in the two arms in which he was especially interested, cavalry and artillery, and he set himself to remedy the former by establishing a veterinary school and introducing improved breeds of horses; and to develope the artillery service he built a foundry at Munich where guns were constructed according to his designs, based upon careful experimentation. He adopted the method of casting both brass and iron cannon solid and boring them afterwards, and it was while superintending this operation that he made the observations which led to his greatest discoveries, that heat is not a material substance but a mode of motion, and that there is a definite quantitative relation between mechanical work and heat. The “Inquiry Concerning the Source of the Heat which is Generated by Friction” is one of the shortest of his scientific papers, but it would be hard to match it in all scientific literature for originality of conception, importance of matter, completeness of experimental demonstration and clearness of expression. Tyndall quotes it in his Heat as a Mode of Motion with the remark: “Rumford in this memoir annihilates the material theory of heat. Nothing more powerful on the subject has since been written.”

The dominant theory of the time was that heat was a fluid substance, which was called caloric, held in the pores of bodies and squeezed out like water from a sponge, when they were hammered or rubbed. Rumford was led to question this by observing the large amount of heat continuously generated by friction in the boring of his cannon. If, he reasoned, heat is a substance that has been squeezed out of the metal, then the powder produced by the boring must have less heat in it than the original solid metal, and therefore would require more heat to raise it to a given temperature. Accordingly, he tested the specific heat of a piece of the gun-metal and an equal weight of the borings with his calorimeter, and found that equal amounts of heat raised them to the same temperature. This experiment was not absolutely conclusive, for it still could be argued that, although their thermal [p.23] capacity was the same at the same temperature, they might have possessed different quantities of heat.

Rumford’s next step was to determine how much heat was produced by a certain amount of friction. If he had been content with mere qualitative results, the world would have had to wait longer for the law of the conservation of energy, but he had the passion of the true scientist to express everything possible in definite figures, even if it was nothing more than the cost of pea-soup or the loss of heat from a tea-kettle.

The apparatus he used for the determination of this most important constant of nature, the relation of heat to work, was a brass six-pounder mounted for boring. Into the short cylinder of metal left on the end of the cannon in the process of casting a hole 3.7 inches in diameter was bored to a depth of 7.2 inches. Against the bottom of the hole a blunt iron borer was held by a pressure of 10,000 pounds and the gun was turned on its axis by horse-power. A thermometer, wrapped in flannel, thrust into the hole rose to 130 °F. after 960 revolutions. The weight of the dust produced by the borer was found to be only 833 grains Troy, yet according to the caloric theory this small amount of metal must have had enough heat squeezed out of it to raise the 113 pounds of gun-metal 70 °F.!

Next he fitted a box containing 18Ύ pounds of water around the cylinder, and in two hours and a half the water boiled.

“It would be difficult to describe the surprise and astonishment expressed in the countenances of the bystanders, on seeing so large a quantity of cold water heated, and actually made to boil without any fire. Though there was, in fact, nothing that could justly be considered as surprising in this event, yet I acknowledge fairly that it afforded me a degree of childish pleasure, which, were I ambitious of the reputation of a grave philosopher, I ought most certainly rather to hide than to discover.”

He then determined by experiment how much heat was given off in burning wax candles, and calculated that it would require 4.8 ounces of wax to heat the water and the metal to the same extent.

[p.24] “From the result of these computations it appears, that the quantity of heat produced equably, or in a continual stream (if I may use that expression) by the friction” in this experiment was greater than that produced by the continuous burning of nine wax candles each Ύ inches in diameter.

Finally Rumford takes the great step of connecting the heat and mechanical work, by calculating the power used in turning the borer and producing the heat by friction. The relation between these two forces of energy, or the dynamical equivalent of heat, he determined as 847 foot-pounds, that is, the work done by raising one pound weight 847 feet will, if converted into heat, raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. Considering when it was done, and the crudity of the apparatus, this is an astonishingly accurate result, for it is only about 10% above the figure now accepted, 779. Forty-two years elapsed before it was more accurately determined by Joule as 772 footpounds. It is now called the joule, although it might well bear the name of the rumford instead.

As an example of the way Count Rumford sums up his evidence and draws from his experiments a clear and logical conclusion, the closing paragraphs of this historic paper are here given. It will be noted that his language is so simple and direct that the most unscientific reader can follow his demonstration of the new theory.

“By meditating on the results of all these experiments we are naturally brought to that great question which has so often been the subject of speculation among philosophers; namely,—What is Heat? Is there any such thing as an igneous fluid? Is there anything that can with propriety be called caloric?

“We have seen that a very considerable quantity of Heat may be excited by the friction of two metallic surfaces, and given off in a constant stream or flux in all directions without interruption or intermission, and without any signs of diminution or exhaustion.

“From whence came the Heat which was continually given off in this manner in the foregoing experiments? Was it furnished by the small particles of metal detached from the larger solid masses on their being rubbed together? This, as we have already seen, could not possibly have been the case.

[p.25] “Was it furnished by the air? This could not have been the case; for, in three of the experiments, the machinery being kept immersed in water, the access of the air of the atmosphere was completely prevented.

“Was it furnished by the water which surrounded the machinery? That this could not have been the case is evident: first, because this water was continually receiving Heat from the machinery and could not at the same time be giving to and receiving Heat from the same body; and, secondly, because there was no chemical decomposition of any part of this water. Had any such decomposition taken place (which, indeed, could not reasonably have been expected), one of its component elastic fluids (most probably inflammable air) [hydrogen] must at the same time have been set at liberty, and, in making its escape into the atmosphere, would have been detected; but, though I frequently examined the water to see if any air-bubbles rose up through it, and had even made preparations to examine them, if any should appear, I could perceive none; nor was there any sign of decomposition of any kind whatever, or other chemical process, going on in the water.

“Is it possible that the Heat could have been supplied by means of the iron bar to the end of which the blunt steel borer was fixed? or by the small neck of gun-metal by which the hollow cylinder was united to the cannon? These suppositions appear more improbable even than either of those before mentioned; for Heat was continually going off, or out of the machinery by both these passages, during the whole time the experiment lasted.

“And, in reasoning on this subject, we must not forget to consider that most remarkable circumstance, that the source of the Heat generated by friction, in these experiments, appeared evidently to be inexhaustible.

“It is hardly necessary to add, that anything which any insulated body, or system of bodies, can continue to furnish without limitation, cannot possibly be a material substance; and it appears to me to be extremely difficult, if not quite impossible, to form any distinct idea of anything capable of being excited and communicated in the manner the Heat was excited and communicated in these experiments, except it be motion.”

One more surprising instance of scientific insight this brief paper contains. He not only connects heat, light, chemical action and mechanical movement together as capable of being converted into one another, but boldly extends the generalization to animal [p.26] life. Since the horse turned the cannon, the strength of a horse can be made to produce heat without fire, light, combustion or chemical decomposition, and this heat, he characteristically suggests, “could be used to cook victual if desired.” But this method of producing heat would be disadvantageous, “for more Heat might be obtained by using the fodder necessary for the support of a horse as fuel.” The complete demonstration of this suggestion that an animal can be considered simply as one form of heat engine was only given within the last few years by Professor Atwater, by his experiments with a calorimeter large enough for a man to live in.

Count Rumford possessed in a high degree the combination which, unfortunately for the world, is somewhat rare, of executive ability and love of science. Whatever practical work he was engaged in, he at once sought to determine its philosophic principles, and, these discovered, to apply them to the task at hand. His mind turned with marvelous rapidity from the formulation of a natural law to its application to daily life, and vice versa. Almost all his published papers show this peculiarity. They usually begin by telling of some trivial incident or accident which directed his attention to the want of information on the subject, then he describes his experiments, quantitative as far as possible, and gives the theory to which they led him, closing the paper with a long and varied list of speculative deductions and possible applications. We may take up any of his essays on heat with the expectation of finding in it somewhere a reference to the needs of the poor, a proof of the beneficence of the Creator and directions for cooking soup, and we shall not be disappointed. His scientific papers make, therefore, very lively reading, even for unscientific readers, on account of their wealth of topics and allusions, their clear style and their portrayal of the personal characteristics of an interesting man. He would be a very dull person and extremely limited in his tastes who could turn over the pages of the four volumes of his work, published by the American Academy of Arts and Science, without soon finding something that would attract his attention and give him helpful ideas.

[p.27] Because the occupations and experiences of Count Rumford’s life were remarkably varied, and his mind was incessantly engaged in philosophic thought concerning them, his name is found among the founders of an astonishingly large number of branches of pure applied science. No one can write the history of the development of our knowledge of heat, light, radiation, convection, cohesion, ballistics, cooking, fireplaces, buildings, clothing, traction, bathing, hospitals, barracks, glaciers, meteorology, conservation of energy, gravitation, theory of colors, or lamps, without mentioning Count Rumford.

The popularity which Count Rumford’s essays obtained was in part due to their literary style. They are clear, logical and direct, although in places too rhetorical for modern taste. He is careful to give the exact figures and observations on which he bases his conclusions, so his results can be checked and recalculated by using the more accurate figures that have been obtained since.

A good experiment accurately described never loses its value by lapse of time. Count Rumford’s own opinion as to the importance of literary style in scientific work is given in these words:

“Too much pains cannot be taken by those who write books to render their ideas clear, and their language concise and easy to be understood. Hours spent by an author in saving minutes and even seconds to his readers, is time well employed.”

Count Rumford could have found no situation better suited to his talents and tastes than this in Bavaria. Here he could play his favorite rτle of benevolent despot to his heart’s content. The army was corrupt and inefficient; the country was poor, wasted by war and neglect, the cities swarmed with beggars; schools were lacking; there were more convents than factories, and industry was not in high repute. It is remarkable that so bigoted a ruler as the Elector Karl Theodor should have placed such confidence and power in the hands of an avowed Protestant and a scientist, and that so conservative a community should have allowed a foreigner to carry out radical reforms requiring the coφperation [p.28] and good-will of large numbers of people, but Rumford had in a marked degree the happy faculty of winning the confidence of both superiors and subordinates. Reformers with both zeal and tact, such as he possessed, are not common in any field of endeavor.

Rumford’s first work with the army was to rid it of “graft.” The officers sold outfits to the recruits on credit, and ran them each year deeper in debt, for the allowance for food and clothing was insufficient, while the resulting bickering and bargaining between officer and soldier were destructive of discipline.

Rumford’s first criticism was that the officer had too much to do with his men. An officer should not be at once commandant, trustee and merchant in his company. Next, that “it is not only unwise but also in a certain sense cruel to put honest men in a position in which their passions can be excited by opportunity and example.” He saw, too, that the soldiers kept in idleness in barracks degenerated, and when they were quartered in farmers’ houses they were such a terror to the country that the people paid them to stay away. The soldier despised the citizen, and the citizen hated the soldier.

To obviate this, Rumford determined to make the soldier a citizen and to put him in a condition where he would contribute to the wealth and welfare of the country instead of being a drain upon it.’

To do this, Count Rumford increased the pay and privileges of the soldiers, improved the quarters, and cut out from their drill all obsolete and dispensable portions. Schools were established in all the regiments for instructing the soldiers and their children in reading, writing and arithmetic, and all books and materials were furnished gratis. With his characteristic economy, he provided that the paper used in the schools should be afterwards made into cartridges, so it cost nothing. The soldiers were employed in such public works as draining marshes, building dykes and making roads; the military bands, that he introduced, playing for them while they worked. Military gardens were provided, and each soldier on enlistment was given a plot of ground, to remain in his possession as long as he cultivated it and kept it [p.29] free from weeds; seeds and garden utensils being furnished free. Rumford justifies this on the ground that skill in the use of the shovel for intrenching can be obtained by digging in the garden. They were permitted to sell the products, and received pay for all their work. Rumford’s military gardens anticipated our Agricultural Experiment Stations, for by means of them he introduced new varieties of crops throughout the country. When a soldier went home on a furlough, he took with him a collection of garden seeds and a few potatoes, and in this way Rumford did for Bavaria what Parmentier did for France.

Idleness and waste were the two great evils against which Count Rumford fought all his life. A beggar and a lazy soldier were his especial detestations. Having put the soldiers at productive work, Rumford next attacked the problem of poverty, led not so much, perhaps, from sentimental love of his fellow-men as by his innate hatred of waste, whether of time or property. A very large proportion of the population of Bavaria at that time was given to begging. Even along the highways in the country almost every person one met on foot held out his hand for alms, and in the cities professional beggars invaded the churches and houses, and besieged the people in the street, exposing loathsome sores, and exciting sympathy by means of maimed and ill-used children. Each beggar had his particular beat or district, and vacancies were eagerly sought for and fought for. Out of a population of 60,000 in Munich, Rumford found 2,600 beggars and indigent persons. This mendicancy and the lying, stealing, vice and abuse of children resulting from it Rumford laid to the injudicious dispensation of alms, due to a false ideal of charity. Instead of punishment or moral suasion he recommended the improvement of conditions, first, by providing food and employment for every man, woman and child. Only when this is done can the penalties against vagrancy be enforced.

Accordingly, he began by establishing a House of Industry in Munich, and, then, by the aid of soldiers “rounded up” all the beggars in the city, and brought them to the large and handsome building provided for them. Here they were given such work as [p.30] they could do, for which they received a warm dinner and payment. Everything possible was done for their comfort and convenience. The workrooms were well ventilated and lighted, and pains were taken to give the edifice an air of elegance as well as of neatness and cleanliness. In the passage leading to the paved court was an inscription in letters of gold upon a black ground “No alms will be received here.” Count Rumford gives his theory of philanthropy in the following words:

“When precepts fail, habits may sometimes be successful. To make vicious and abandoned people happy, it has generally been supposed, 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 the 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 punishment to reform their morals.”

The House of Industry was chiefly devoted to the manufacture of clothing for the army and for sale; from the cording and spinning of flax, hemp, cotton and wool to the finished garment; and work of a sort suited to his capacity was found for every one, from the aged and infirm to the youngest.

Especial attention was given to training the children in habits of industry. Even with them Rumford carried out his plan of avoiding the use of force. Every child was given his dinner and his three kreutzers a day, whether he worked or not, but the children who refused to work were compelled to sit on a bench and watch their companions working, until they cried for something to do. Then they were given light spinning-wheels, and promoted and publicly rewarded as they became more skilful. Twice a day they attended school in the same building.

The financial success of the House of Industry was largely due to the system of keeping accounts devised by Rumford, very much like those now in use in modern manufactories. “Lead us not into temptation” was a verse of Scripture the inspiration of which he never doubted, and he was strongly of the opinion that [p.31] the best way to keep men honest was to give them no chance to be dishonest. Every piece of yarn transferred from one room to another, every loaf of stale bread collected from the bakers had to be duly recorded on printed blanks. In his recommendations for all charitable work he emphatically insists upon strict bookkeeping and publicity of accounts. All cases of relief were to be listed alphabetically.

In his plans for systematic, impersonal, non-patronizing and business-like assistance to self-support, Count Rumford anticipated the organized charities of a hundred years later, but in the tact with which he secured the cooperation of the whole community, including the authorities of army, church and state, prominent citizens of the middle classes, and the poor themselves, he has had, unfortunately, few imitators. In five years he practically abolished beggary in Bavaria, and converted many of the former mendicants into industrious and self-respecting people. He took less pride in his decorations and titles than in telling that when he was dangerously sick in Munich, he was awakened by hearing the confused noise of the prayers of a multitude of people who were passing in the street, and was told that it was the poor of Munich who were going to the church to put up public prayers for him, “a private person, a stranger, a Protestant.”

Rumford was able to carry out his plan of providing free dinners to all who needed them by turning his inventive genius to the subject of cooking, and making the first scientific study of cheap and nutritious diet and the economical management of heat. His specialty was a rich soup made of peas and barley, into which he afterwards introduced potatoes, surreptitiously, because of the popular prejudice against them. The secret of its preparation lay in cooking for over four hours at a low temperature, and by his skilful contrivances in the kitchen three women did the cooking for a thousand persons. A pound and a half of soup, with seven ounces of rye bread cost only one cent. He shows what a great loss of heat occurs in cooking by the ordinary methods, which unfortunately are still in use. In particular he objected to rapid boiling which, as he says, cannot raise the temperature above the [p.37] boiling-point, but uses more than five times as much heat as is necessary to heat the same quantity of water from the freezing-point, and at the same time destroys the taste by carrying off the volatile flavors. His cooking was done in closed vessels, covered with wood or some other non-conducting material, to prevent the radiation of heat, in fact constructed on the same principle as the calorimeter he employed for scientific research. All these lessons Mr. Edward Atkinson and others have been vainly trying to teach us in recent years. The “fireless cooker” now coming into use is a belated application of Rumford’s idea.

To obviate the great waste of heat in roasting on a spit before an open fire, he invented the sheet iron oven known as the “Rumford roaster.” A dripping-pan filled with water prevented the decomposition of the fat by the high temperature, and the flues were arranged so that a blast of hot air could be passed over the meat to brown it when it was cooked.

In 1795, after eleven years in Munich, Rumford returned to England for the purpose of publishing his essays on heat and its utilization, and on public institutions for the poor. He was then at the height of his renown as scientist and philanthropist, and was everywhere received with great honor. In England and Ireland he assisted in the establishment of soup-kitchens and workhouses, and introduced into public institutions his system of heating and cooking by steam. Models of his fireplaces, stoves and cooking utensils were placed on exhibition for workmen to copy, for he always refused to take out patents on his inventions. He writes that at this time he “had not less than five hundred smoking chimneys on my hands” in public and private buildings, many of them chronic and thought incurable. The great waste of heat in the old-fashioned fireplace shocked his economical nature, and he studied the scientific principles involved, in order to check the excessive consumption of fuel, increase the radiation in the room, and prevent loss of fuel in the smoke. He proved the best possible proportions for the chimney recess of the open fireplace to be that the width of the back should equal the depth from front to back and that the width of the front should be [p.33] three times the width of the back, a rule which is followed to this day. By making the angle of the sides of the fireplace 45°, the greatest possible amount of heat was reflected into the room. He recommended the use of fire-clay instead of metal and of clay fireballs to insure complete combustion and increase the radiating surface. Refuse coal-dust was made into briquettes. His chief improvement consisted in the reduction of the size of the chimney throat and in rounding off the edge of the chimney breast. Since a room is warmed from the walls, and not by radiant heat passing through the air, this work involved a study of the radiating power of different surfaces and materials, and proceeding from the fact smoke is pushed up, not drawn up the chimney, he was led to make extensive investigations in the theory of ventilation.

As it was hopeless to make the open fireplace an economical heater, he turned his attention to the construction of cooking ranges and to the utilization of waste heat of smoke and steam. In the Bavarian House of Industry he passed the smoke from the cooking ranges through copper pipes in a wooden cask, and used it for cooking his pea-soup. From his experience he calculated that the private kitchen expends ten times as much fuel as the public kitchen.

The progress of the century since then has been along the lines indicated by Rumford. The range has been instituted for the fireplace, closed and jacketed vessels are employed for cooking, steam-pipes are used for heating buildings, and the utilization of waste heat has become a factor of recognized importance in factory management. The first range built in this country in conformity with Rumford’s principle was constructed under the direction of Professor John Kemp of Columbia College in 1798.

The question of suitable covering for steam-pipes used for heating rooms required for its solution a knowledge of radiation from different surfaces, and in this field Rumford did some excellent original work. In these experiments he used two cylindrical vessels of thin sheet brass filled with warm water and covered with whatever coating or covering he wished to test. To determine which radiated heat the faster, he constructed a [p.34] “thermoscope” or differential thermometer, consisting of a closed glass tube with the bulbs at each end turned up. In the middle was a drop of colored alcohol which moved in one direction or the other when the bulbs were unequally heated. When he held a cylinder filled with warm water and blackened on the bottom over one bulb, and a cylinder with water at the same temperature and bright on the bottom over the other, the drop of alcohol moved instantly away from the blackened surface, showing that it emitted heat more rapidly at the same temperature. By moving the cylinder back and forth until the drop remained at rest, their relative distances gave data for calculating their relative radiating power. All metals, he found, gave off heat at the same rate, and he asks: “Does not this afford a strong presumption that heat is in all cases excited and communicated by means of radiations, or undulations, as I should rather choose to call them?”

His theory of heat is so clearly expressed and anticipates in so many respects our modern ideas, that it is worth quoting as an example of the use of the scientific imagination.

“No reasonable objection against this hypothesis (of the incessant motions of the constituent particles of all bodies) founded on a supposition that there is not room sufficient for these motions, can be advanced; for we have abundant reason to conclude that if there be in fact any indivisible solid particles of matter (which, however, is very problematical) these particles must be so extremely small, compared to the spaces they occupy, that there must be ample room for all kinds of motion among them.

“And whatever the nature or directions of these internal motions may be, among the constituent particles of a solid body, as long as these constituent particles, in their motions, do not break loose from the systems to which they belong (and to which they are attached by gravitation) and run wild in the vast void by which each system is bounded (which, as long as the known laws of nature exist, is no doubt impossible) the form or external appearance of a solid cannot be sensibly changed by them.

“But if the motions of the constituent particles of any solid body be either increased or diminished, in consequence of the actions or radiations of other distant bodies, this event could not happen without producing some visible change in the solid body.

“If the motions of its constituent particles were diminished by [p.35] these radiations, it seems reasonable to conclude that their elongations would become less, and consequently that the volume of the body would be contracted; but if the motions of these particles were increased, we might conclude, a priori, that the volume of the body would be expanded.

“We have not sufficient data to enable us to form distinct ideas of the nature of the change which takes place when a solid body is melted; but as fusion is occasioned by heat, that is to say, by an augmentation (from without) of that action which occasions expansion, if expansion be occasioned by an increase of the motions of the constituent particles of the body, it is, no doubt, a certain additional increase of those motions which causes the form of the body to be changed, and from a solid to become a fluid substance.

“As long as the constituent particles of a solid body which are at the surface of that body do not, in their motions, pass by each other, the body must necessarily retain its form or shape, however rapid those motions or vibrations may be; but as soon as the motion of these particles is so augmented that they can no longer be restrained or retained within these limits, the regular distribution of the particles which they required in crystallization is gradually destroyed, and the particles so detached from the solid mass form new and independent systems, and become a liquid substance.

“Whatever may be the figures of the orbits which the particles of a liquid describe, the mean distances of those particles from each other remain nearly the same as when they constituted a solid, as appears by the small change of specific gravity which takes place when a solid is melted and becomes a liquid; and on a supposition that their motions are regulated by the same laws which regulate the solar system, it is evident that the additional motion they must necessarily acquire, in order to their taking the fluid form, cannot be lost, but must continue to reside in the liquid, and must again make its appearance when the liquid changes its form and becomes a solid.

“It is well known that a certain quantity of heat is required to melt a solid, which quantity disappears or remains latent in the liquid produced in that process, and that the same quantity of heat reappears when this liquid is congealed and becomes a solid body.”

From this disquisition on molecular physics he at once draws the practical conclusion that a saucepan ought to be smoked on the bottom and bright on the sides in order to absorb and retain the greatest amount of heat. Stoves ought not be polished, but [p.36] are better rusted. Steam-pipes used for heating rooms should be painted or covered with paper.

He then considers the question of why negroes are black and arctic animals white, and goes so far in these speculations as to lose sight of his own experiments which proved that color made no practical difference in the radiation and absorption of heat.

“All I will venture to say on the subject is, that were I called to inhabit a very hot country, nothing should prevent me from making the experiment of blackening my skin, or at least wearing a black shirt in the shade and especially at night, in order to find out, if by those means, I could not continue to make myself more comfortable.”

Nothing in fact did prevent him, not the criticisms of his friends, the remonstrances of his wife or the jeers of the street gamins, from wearing a complete suit of white clothes from hat to shoes, on Paris streets as a demonstration of their superiority over black clothing.

Rumford says he considers his researches on clothing “by far the most fortunate and the most important I ever made,” because they contribute to health and comfort of life. With this practical object in view, he devoted many years to experiments on the propagations of heat through solids, liquids and gases, and attained very clear ideas of the three ways in which heat travels, by direct radiation, by conduction from particle to particle, and by convection or currents of heated particles. These experiments were made by thermometers with the bulb sealed into the center of a large glass bulb. The space between the outer bulb and the thermometer of two of these instruments being filled with the substances to be compared, they were taken from boiling water and plunged into ice-cold water or vice versa, and the rate of change of the thermometer noted. In this way he determined that moist air is a better conductor of heat than dry. Thus he explains “why the thermometer is not always a just measure of the apparent or sensible heat of the atmosphere,” and why colds prevail during autumnal rains and spring thaws, and why it is so dangerous to sleep in damp beds and live in damp houses, and he takes [p.37] occasion, as usual, to pay a few compliments to Divine Providence for so arranging it that cold air shall contain less moisture than warm.

He exhausted the air from the space surrounding the thermometer in one of these double-walled apparatus by fastening the bulb on the upper end of a barometer tube, and discovered that through such a Torricellian vacuum heat passes with greater difficulty than through the air. It was by means of this double-walled vacuum apparatus, silvered on the internal surfaces as recommended by Rumford, to prevent the radiation of heat, that Professor Dewar a hundred years later was enabled to experiment with liquified air and hydrogen in the Royal Institution which Rumford founded. Bottles, jacketed with a vacuum as Rumford suggested, are now in use to provide automobilists with hot and cold drinks.

In the same way he tested the relative conductivity for heat of a layer of fur, wool, silk, cotton, linen and many other substances, and found that heat does not pass from particle to particle of the air (conduction), but by currents (convection), and that such fibrous bodies as cloth and fur are poor conductors of heat, because the air in their interstices is prevented from circulating. Recent researches on adsorption have proved that he was right in the importance he attached to the “cast” or layer of air which is held so firmly to the surface of the fibers that it is very difficult to remove. He applies the principle he had discovered in the explanation of why bears and wolves have thicker fur on their backs than on their bellies, and how the snow protects the ground.

By exposing dry cloths, fur and down on china plates in a damp cellar and then reweighing them, he determined the quality of moisture they absorbed from the atmosphere, and, finding that wool absorbed most, he determined to wear flannel next to the skin in all seasons and climates; a deduction of doubtful validity.

The important researches he conducted on convection owed their origin to the fact that he was brought up in “the Great Pie Belt.” Like other New England boys he was much struck with the length of time it took for an apple-pie to get cool enough to eat, [p.38] “and I never burnt my mouth with them, or saw others meet with the same misfortune, without endeavoring, but in vain, to find out some way of accounting in a satisfactory manner for this surprising phenomenon.”

Having in later life burnt his mouth, this time on a spoonful of thick rice soup with which he was feeding himself while watching an experiment, he determined to settle the question. Accordingly he made some apple-sauce, and filling with it the jacket of his double-walled thermometer, he found that it required twice as many seconds to cool as when the jacket was filled with water. Next he evaporated the apple-sauce, dried the fiber and found that apple-sauce was 98 per cent water. So small an amount of solid matter could not interfere with the transmission of heat through the water, except by hindering the circulation of the water. He deduces from this that the reason why animals and plants do not more easily freeze during the winter is because sap and animal fluids are thick and viscid, and also are prevented from circulating freely by the cell walls. By heating a glass cylinder (test-tube) containing a powder suspended in water, he was able to see the warm currents ascending on one side and the cold currents descending on the other, and to demonstrate that heat is not conducted in liquids equally in all directions as it is in solids, but by rising currents due to the expansion of the liquid by heat. He found to his surprise that he was able to boil water in the upper part of the tube while holding the lower part in his hand, and that a cake of ice fastened at the bottom of the tube filled with boiling water required hours to melt, while one at the top melted in a few minutes. From these and many similar experiments he was led to the conclusions that air, water and all fluids are non-conductors of heat, and that heat cannot be propagated downwards in liquids as long as they continue to be condensed by cold.

He shows that life on this globe would be impossible if it were not for the fact that water by cooling from about 40° F. to 32° F. expands instead of contracts, for if ice were heavier than water it would sink to the bottom, and all lakes would be frozen solid and not melted during the summer.

[p.39] “It does not appear to me that there is anything which human sagacity can fathom within the wide-extended bounds of the visible creation which affords a more striking or more palpable proof of the wisdom of the Creator, and of the special care he has taken in the general arrangement of the universe to preserve life, than this wonderful contrivance,”

that water forms the only exception to the universal law that all bodies are condensed by cold.

“If, among barbarous nations, the fear of a God and the practice of religious duties tend to soften savage dispositions and to prepare the mind for all those sweet enjoyments which result from peace, order, indust1y, and friendly intercourse, a belief in the existence of a Supreme Intelligence, who rules and governs the universe with wisdom and goodness, is not less essential to the happiness of those who, by cultivating their mental powers, have learned to know how little can be known.”

This sentence, from its style and mode of thought, its unconscious arrogance and ostentatious modesty, is so characteristic of its age that it could be dated with considerable certainty, even if found on a loose leaf. The more thorough study of the nature of the last hundred years has shown that the conception of the “Great Architect of the Universe” given in the natural theology of that day must be either abandoned as inadequate or enlarged to a more comprehensive ideal of creative wisdom. Rumford is, of course, wrong in thinking that water is the only exception to the general rule that heat expands and cold contracts. Bismuth, cast-iron, type-metal and most alloys expand on solidifying, and this also is of benefit to mankind, for without this property it would be impossible to make good castings.

During the year Rumford spent in England he gave $5,000 to the Royal Society of London, and a like sum to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the interest to be given every two years as a premium to the person who made the most important discovery or useful improvement on heat or light, “as shall tend most to promote the good of mankind.” The Rumford Medal of the Royal Society has been regularly awarded every two years to [p.40] the most distinguished scientists of Europe and America, beginning in 1802 with Rumford himself. The American Academy, on the contrary, found the plan “absolutely impracticable” and, for forty-three years during which very great progress was made in the knowledge of light and heat, and especially in such practical applications as improved stoves and lamps which Rumford especially favored, no award was made. The fund by 1829 had grown so large that the courts were called upon to allow the money to be expended for the promotion of science in other ways, such as lectures, books and apparatus. Count Rumford seems to have changed his mind as to the value of this method of promoting the advancement of science, for when he founded the Royal Institution a few years later he expressly prohibited all premiums and rewards. The Rumford Fund of the American Academy now amounts to $58,722, and gives an annual income of more than half the original gift, which is expended for the furtherance of researches in heat and light.

Before leaving England in 1797 Count Rumford was joined by his daughter whom he had left an infant in America twenty-two years before. His wife had died five years before at the age of fifty-two. Many of the letters of his daughter are printed in Ellis’s Life of Count Rumford, and give an interesting picture of society at the Bavarian court as seen by the New England girl, as well as a self-revelation of the transformation of Sally Thompson into Sarah, Countess of Rumford. She expected to find her father dark in complexion, for her childish impressions had been formed from the only portrait her mother had of him, a silhouette profile. Her mother had told her that he had “carroty” hair, whereas she found it “a very pretty color.” He had bright blue eyes and a sweet smile. Dr. Young of the Royal Institution says, “in person he was above middle size, of a dignified and pleasing expression of countenance and a mildness in his manner and tone of voice.” In disposition, however, he was authoritative and dictatorial. Always a brilliant conversationalist, he was inclined in his later years to monopolize the table talk, and he made himself unpopular by promptly correcting, from his wide experience [p.41] and remarkable memory, any misstatements of detail made by a member of the company. He spoke English, French, German, Spanish and Italian fluently, and published scientific papers in the three first-named languages. He was punctilious in etiquette, nice in dress and fond of titles and decorations. Throughout his life he was unduly popular with the ladies.

In early life he practiced music and he sketched his own inventions, but had no taste for painting, sculpture or poetry. He took pleasure in landscape gardening, but knew nothing of botany. His favorite games were billiards and chess, but he rarely played the latter because his feet became like ice. He was very abstemious in eating, partly from theory, partly on account of his poor health. He never drank anything but water.

In spite of a tendency toward display and a liking for elegance in housing and habit, he was very careful in his expenditures and strict in his accounts. He allowed no object to remain out of place after he had used it, and he was never late to an appointment. Cuvier in his eulogy says he worshiped “order as a sort of subordinate deity, regulator of this lower world.” “He permitted himself nothing superfluous, not a step, not a word; and he intrepreted the word ‘superfluous’ in its strictest sense.”

Count Rumford on his return to Munich with his daughter after a year in England found himself placed in a position of great responsibility and difficulty. By the defection of Prussia the burden of resistance to the victorious armies of the French republic had been thrown upon the Austrians who were unable to make a stand against the advance of Moreau. A week after his arrival the Elector fled from Munich and took refuge in Saxony, leaving Count Rumford at the head of the Council of Regency. After their defeat at Friedberg, the Austrians under Latour retreated to Munich, closely followed by the French, and demanded admittance to the city. This Rumford refused to grant, and when General Moreau arrived with the French army, he also kept them out of the city by the promise of supplies and the withdrawal of the Bavarian contingent. Since Count Rumford was now in command of the Bavarian troops crowded into the [p.42] city and camped in the public places, he improved the opportunity to introduce regimental cooking stoves made of sheet copper and fire-brick, similar to those now used in military campaigns.

When Moreau retreated the Elector returned, and Rumford was rewarded for his services in this emergency by being placed at the head of the Department of General Police, and soon after by being appointed Minister Plenipotentiary from Bavaria to Great Britain. He thus left Munich for London, but the British Government held that it was altogether impossible to receive as the representative of a foreign Power, even of so close an ally as Bavaria, one who was a British subject, a former member of the State Department and still on the pay-roll of the British army.

He was unwilling to return to Bavaria where his patron, the Elector Palatine, Karl Theodor, on account of his age (75) and weakness of character was no longer able to protect him against the intrigues and envy of the Bavarian officers, and where the unsettled state of the country was not favorable to scientific pursuits. He decided therefore to remain in England in an unofficial capacity, and purchased a villa in Brompton Row, Knightsbridge, near London, which he fitted up in accordance with his own ideas of ventilation and heating. Double walls and windows prevented the escape of heat, and the space between the glass partitions was filled with plants; the decorations were harmoniously arranged according to Newton’s theory of complementary colors; folding beds economized space, and the cooking was done in the dining-room, without annoyance from odor or heat.

At this time Count Rumford contemplated a visit to America, and even proposed to purchase an estate near Cambridge and settle down in his native country. In spite of his active service in the British army, he had retained the friendship and esteem of Colonel Baldwin and other prominent men in the United States. He had been elected honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and his Essays, published in this country, had made him well known. He now transmitted to the President of the United States through Rufus King, American Minister to England, his [p.43] plans for an American Military Academy like the one he had founded in Bavaria, and a model of a field-piece of his own invention. This resulted in an offer from the War Department, authorized by President John Adams, of appointment as Superintendent of the American Military Academy about to be established, and also as Inspector-General of the Artillery of the United States, with suitable rank and emoluments.

But at the time this offer was received Rumford was too much engrossed with a new project in England to accept it. For two years, except when he was sick, he worked night and day with all his energy to found “a public institution for diffusing the knowledge and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical inventions and improvements, and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

The Royal Institution remains the chief monument to the memory of Rumford, for thanks to his excellent plan and organization, and to the men of unusual ability who have occupied positions in it, there have emanated from it many of the most important discoveries in science of the past century, and it has done more for the advancement of knowledge than the old and richly endowed universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Count Rumford succeeded in interesting all classes, from courtiers to mechanics, in his project. He secured a very large number of “proprietors” at fifty guineas or more, and annual subscribers at three guineas, including many nobles, prelates, members of Parliament, ladies and scientific men, and in 1800 the Institution received the royal approval.

A suitable building was constructed, containing a lecture theater, a museum of models and inventions, a chemical laboratory, a library and a conversation room, an experimental kitchen, a printing plant for publishing the Journal, and workshops for making apparatus. Board and lodging were to be provided for some twenty young men to study mechanics, and apprentices were to be admitted free to the gallery of the lecture room. Rumford, always on his guard against “graft,” made elaborate [p.44] rules against any rewards or prizes for inventions made in the Institution, and against any exercise of favoritism by the authorities.

In some respects the Royal Institution departed from Rumford’s intentions as soon as he relinquished his somewhat despotic control. He obviously had in mind a sort of technological school and laboratory for inventing useful appliances, and testing them for the benefit of the public according to the idea thus expressed in his Prospectus:

“It is an undoubtable truth that the successive improvements in the condition of man, from a state of ignorance and barbarism to that of the highest cultivation and refinement, are usually effected by the aid of machinery in procuring the necessaries, the comforts and the elegancies of life; and that the preeminence of any people in civilization is, and ought ever to be, estimated by the state of industry and mechanical improvement among them.”

When Rumford left England the instruction in mechanics was quietly dropped, because it was thought that teaching science to the lower classes had a dangerous political tendency. The stone staircase leading to the mechanics’ gallery was torn down, the culinary contrivances and the models were put away, and the workmen discharged. For a time the Royal Institution seemed likely to degenerate into a mere fashionable lecture course for “a number of silly women and dilettante philosophers.”

The Royal Institution owes its survival and success to the fact that it has always contained one or two determined investigators, and that they were given a free hand. Rumford rightly prided himself on his choice of Humphry Davy, then twenty-three years old, as assistant lecturer in chemistry, at a salary of $500 a year, room, coals and candles and a folding bed from the model room being provided for his accommodation. Five years later in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, Davy decomposed the fixed alkalies by the electric current, and obtained from them the new metals, sodium and potassium. Faraday, then twenty-one, attended four lectures of Sir Humphry Davy, wrote out his notes, illustrated them by sketches of the apparatus, and sent them in to [p.45] the lecturer, in this way securing a position in the Royal Institution, where he discovered that a current of electricity could be generated by passing a wire in front of a magnet, which is the essential principle of all our dynamos and motors. The Royal Institution also gave to Dalton, Tyndall and Dewar the opportunity to carry on their researches. Dr. Thomas Young, the discoverer of the wave theory of light, was chosen by Rumford for the lecturer on physics. If, then, the Royal Institution has failed to carry out some of Rumford’s plans for applied science, the discoveries which have been made in the field in which he was equally interested have resulted in greater benefits to mankind than even his imagination could conceive. Were he living now, he would not find reason to deplore, as he often did, the conservatism of manufacturers and the delay in the application of scientific discoveries to practical purposes, although he might still argue, as he used to do, that the promotion of invention by commerical and selfish motives is wasteful and unsystematic.

Although Count Rumford’s genius eminently fitted him for planning and promoting the establishment of such institutions, his temperament was not such as to enable him to work well as one of a number of managers who all regarded themselves entitled to as much consideration and authority as himself. His dictatorial manner and fondness for having his own way caused some friction in the conduct of affairs. His health was poor, and his sensitive nature was excessively irritated by the savage attacks of the reviewers and satirists of the time upon his scientific and philanthropic work. The Royal Institution was ridiculed as an attempt to make science fashionable, and his efforts in behalf of the poor were attacked on two different grounds, by the radicals as an attempt to squeeze down the poor to a lower standard of life by feeding them on such stuff as Indian corn and potatoes; and, on the other hand, by aristocrats, because it was dangerous to society to instil into the minds of the lower classes ideas above their station. It was thought to be a degradation of science to apply it to such ignoble purposes as stoves and pots. Peter Pindar, for example, writes:

[p.46] “Knight of the dish-clout, whereso’er I walk,
I hear thee, Rumford, all the kitchen talk:
Note of melodious cadence on my ear,
Loud echoes, ‘Rumford’ here and ‘Rumford’ there.
Lo! every parlor, drawingroom, I see,
Boasts of thy stoves, and talks of naught but thee.”

After two years in his quiet villa in Brompton Row his visits to the continent became longer and more frequent, as he looked about for a new field of activity. Besides his offer from America, he had an invitation from the Czar of Russia to enter his service, and the new Elector of Bavaria, afterwards made king by Napoleon, showed him some favor and increased his pension. But Paris drew him the strongest, chiefly by two attractions, Napoleon and Madame Lavoisier. At a meeting of the French Institute in 1801 he sat near the First Consul, while Volta read his paper on his galvanic pile, which was discussed by Napoleon with great clearness and force. When Rumford was presented to him, Napoleon said he knew him by reputation, and that the French nation had adopted some of his inventions. Immediately after this interview he received an invitation to dine with Napoleon, as the only stranger present. Rumford was later elected a member of the French Institute, on the same date as Jefferson, President of the United States, and he contributed to it many important papers.

He had become intimately acquainted with Madame Lavoisier while traveling in Switzerland, and, since she was handsome, rich, clever in conversation and interested in science, he had reason to suppose that she would make a desirable wife. She was the daughter of Mr. Paulze, a contractor of the finances under the old regime. At fourteen she had been married to the chemist Lavoisier, then twice her age, and she assisted him in the laboratory, in translating and in drawing the illustrations for his great Traitι de Chimie. When the Revolution broke out Lavoisier was arrested at the instigation of Marat, whose essay on fire he had contemptuously criticized. When brought before the revolutionary tribunal in 1793 Lavoisier begged for a few more days of life, in order to see the outcome of a chemical experiment on which he [p.47] was engaged, but Coffinhal, vice-president of the tribunal, declared that “the Republic has no use for savants,” and so he was guillotined.

Count Rumford was married to Madame Lavoisier in 1805, and set up a handsome establishment in the center of Paris. But neither party found the other agreeable to live with, as they were both too independent and differed decidedly in their tastes. Madame Rumford was fond of lavish entertainments and elaborate dinners, while the Count ate little and drank less, and detested idle conversation. Probably De Candolle’s analysis of their temperaments will say all that it is necessary about their marital unhappiness.

“Rumford was cold, calm, obstinate, egotistic, prodigiously occupied with the material element of life and the very smallest inventions of detail. He wanted his chimneys, lamps, coffee-pots, windows, made after a certain pattern, and he contradicted his wife a thousand times a day about the household management. Madame Rumford was a woman of resolute wilful character. Her spirit was high, her soul strong and her character masculine.”

And one scene from their married life narrated in the Count’s own words in a letter to his daughter Sarah will be sufficient to explain why they separated:

“A large party had been invited I neither liked nor approved of, and invited for the sole purpose of vexing me. Our house being in the center of the garden, walled around, with iron gates, I put on my hat, walked down to the porter’s lodge and gave him orders, on his peril, not to let anyone in. Besides, I took away the keys. Madame came down, and when the company arrived she talked with them,—she on one side, they on the other of the high brick wall. After that she goes and pours boiling water on some of my beautiful flowers!”

Four years of such life were enough; they parted and lived happily ever after. Madame Lavoisier de Rumford kept her coterie of distinguished people about her until the day of her death at the age of seventy-eight, when with her perished the last of the eighteenth century salons. Count Rumford retired to a villa in [p.48] Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, where he spent the remaining five years of his life in peace and quiet, dividing his time between his laboratory and his garden with its fifty varieties of roses, gradually becoming more isolated from society, and retaining only few friends, among whom were Lagrange and Cuvier. His daughter Sarah joined him for a time, but was not with him when he died.

His scientific researches in Paris were largely devoted to light, and in this field his discoveries were of great importance and practical value. In order to get the arithmetical results for which he always strove, it was necessary to find a method of measuring the relative intensity of different sources of light, and for this purpose he invented what is known as the Rumford photometer. In this the standard lamp and the one to be compared with it are so placed that the two shadows cast by an opaque rod upon a screen side by side are of equal intensity, then the relative brightness of the lights are inversely as the squares of their distances from the screen. He had an assistant move the lamps lest he should be led into the temptation to distort his observations in accordance with his theory. Since he found that the same weight of wax or oil burned under different conditions gave off very different amounts of light, he came to the conclusion that light cannot be of the chemical products of combustions, but was a wave motion in the ether due to the heating of solid particles in the flame. Finding how small was the light compared, with what might be obtained from the fuel, he experimented on wicks, air-holes, polyflame burners, chimneys, etc., until he had constructed fourteen different kinds of lamps. According to the Paris wits, one of these gave so powerful a light that a man carrying it in the street was so blinded by it that he could not find his way home, but wandered in the Bois de Boulogne all night.

He anticipated the impressionist artists in the discovery of blue shadows, and, by a series of very skilful experiments, he showed that whenever shadows were cast by two lights of different colors, the shadows were of the complementary color, one real and the other imaginary. Each color called up in the mind its companion which, when combined with it, produced a pure white. [p.49] He calls attention to the value of such studies for artists, house furnishers and “ladies choosing ribbons,” and suggests entertainments of color harmonies, like musical concerts. Rumford also experimented on the chemical effects produced by light, such as the deposition of a film of metallic gold and silver on a ribbon or slip of ivory which had been dipped in a solution of their salts; a reaction which forms the basis of modern photography.

His researches on heat and light were based upon determinations of the heat of combustion of the fuel used by means of an ingeniously devised calorimeter. In this the products of combustion are drawn through a worm immersed in a known quantity of water and the increase in the temperature of the water determined by a thermometer immersed in it. By having the water at the beginning of the experiment about as much cooler than the room as it was warmer at the end, one of the chief sources of error, that of loss of heat to the air, was practically eliminated: a method still in use. With this apparatus, which has only recently been superseded by the bomb calorimeter using compressed oxygen, he determined with remarkable accuracy the heat of burning alcohol, hydrogen, carbon and many kinds of wood, coal, oil and wax. From a determination of the heat of combustion of wood and of charcoal made from it, he deduced the fact that the gas lost in making charcoal is the most valuable part of the fuel.

In looking over Count Rumford’s papers after a hundred years of scientific work has been done in the fields where he was a pioneer, one is forcibly struck by his selection of what were the most important problems to be solved. This is shown, for example, in the interest he took in the inconspicuous phenomena of surface tension, and his study of the pellicle covering the surface of water, which supports a globule of mercury as in a pocket, and gives footing to water-spiders. He clearly shows the importance of this in movements of sap in the trees and of the fluids of the animals; a line of investigation that just now is proving extremely fruitful in physics and physiology.

While in Paris he experimented on the proper construction of wagon wheels, and invented a dynamometer by which the pull of [p.50] the horse was registered by the needle of a spring-balance. Having ascertained in this way that broad tires reduced the traction power, he adopted them for his carriage notwithstanding the jeers of the street crowds.

Count Rumford died in Auteuil August 21, 1814, in his sixty-second year. Baron Cuvier, Permanent Secretary of the French Institute, and his intimate friend, pronounced the eulogy before the Institute, coupling his name with that of another recently deceased member, Parmentier, who introduced the potato into France. Both savants, he says, were defenders of the human race against its two greatest enemies, hunger and cold; both these enemies are to be fought with the same weapon, the proper use of carbon compounds. The physicist who invents an economical fireplace is as though he had added acres of wood; the botanist who brings a new edible plant virtually increases the arable land. In laboring for the poor, Count Rumford was rewarded by his greatest discoveries, so Fontenelle’s remark could be applied to him that “he had taken the same road to Heaven and to the Academy.”

From David Starr Jordan (ed.), Leading American Men of Science  (1910), 9-50 (source) .

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  • Today in Science History Icon 26 March - short biography, births, deaths and events on Count Rumford's date of birth.
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Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

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