1902 Encyclopedia > Sir B Thompson

Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford
Anglo-American scientist, philanthropist and administrator
(1753-1814)




SIR BENJAMIN THOMPSON, COUNT RUMFORD (1753-1814), an eminent man of science, enlightened philanthropist, and sagacious public administrator, was born at Woburn, in Massachusetts, in 1753, and died at Auteuil, near Paris, in 1814. His family had been settled in New England since the middle of the century preceding his birth, and belonged to the class of moderately wealthy farmers. His father died while Thompson was very youngs and his mother speedily married a second time. But he seems to have been well cared for, and his education was so far from neglected that, according to his own statement, he was at the age of fourteen sufficiently advanced " in algebra, geometry, astronomy, and even the higher mathe-matics," to calculate a solar eclipse within four seconds of accuracy. In 1766 he was apprenticed to a storekeeper at Salem, in New England, and while in that employment occupied himself in chemical and mechanical experiments, as well as in engraving, in which he attained to some pro-ficiency. The outbreak of the American war put a stop to the trade of his master, and he thereupon left Salem and went to Boston, where he engaged himself as assistant in another store. He afterwards applied himself to the study, with a view to the practice, of medicine, and then (although, as he affirms, for only six weeks and three days) he became a school teacher—it is believed at Bradford on the Merrimack. Thompson was at that period between eighteen and nineteen years old, and at nineteen, he says, " I married, or rather I was married." His wife was the widow of a Colonel Rolfe, and the daughter of a Mr Walker, "a highly respectable minister, and one of the first settlers at Rumford," now called Concord, in New Hampshire. His wife was possessed of considerable pro-perty, and was his senior by fourteen years. This marriage was the foundation of Thompson's success. Within three years of it, however, he left his wife in America to make his way to wealth and distinction in Europe, and, although his only child by her, a daughter, subsequently joined him, he never saw and, so far as anything appears to the contrary, never attempted or desired to see her again.
Soon after his marriage Thompson became acquainted with Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire, who, struck by his appearance and bearing, conferred on him the majority of a local regiment of militia. He speedily became the object of distrust among the friends of the American cause, and it was considered prudent that he should seek an early opportunity of leaving the country. On the evacuation of Boston by the royal troops, therefore, in 1776, he was selected by Governor Wentworth to carry despatches to England. On his arrival in London he almost immediately attracted the attention of Lord George Germaine, secretary of state, who appointed him to a clerkship in his office. Within a few months he was advanced to the post of secretary of the province of Georgia, and in about four years he was made under-secretary of state. His official duties, however, did not materially interfere with the prosecution of scientific pursuits, and in 1779 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Among the subjects to which he especially directed his attention were the explosive force of gun-powder, the construction of firearms, and the system of signalling at sea. In connexion with the last, he made a cruise in the Channel fleet, on board the " Victory," as a volunteer under the command of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy. On the resignation of Lord North's administra-tion, oi which Lord George Germaine was one of the least lucky and most unpopular members, Thompson left the civil service, and was nominated to a cavalry command in the revolted provinces of America. But the War of Independence was practically at an end, and in 1783 he finally quitted active service, with the rank and half-pay of a lieutenant-colonel. He now formed the design of joining the Austrian army, for the purpose of campaigning against the Turks, and so crossed over from Dover to Calais with Gibbon, who, writing to his friend Lord Sheffield, calls his fellow-passenger " Mr Secretary-Colonel-Admiral-Philosopher Thompson." At Strasburg he was introduced to Prince Maximilian, afterwards elector of Bavaria, and was by him invited to enter the civil and military service of that state. Having obtained the leave of the British Government to accept the prince's offer, he received the honour of knighthood from George III., and during eleven years he remained at Munich as minister of war, minister of police, and grand chamberlain to the elector. His political and courtly employments, however, did not absorb all his time, and he contributed during his stay in Bavaria a number of papers to the Philosophical Transactions. But that he was sufficiently alert as the principal adviser of the elector the results of his labours in that capacity amply prove. He reorganized the Bavarian army; he suppressed mendicity and found employment for the poor; and he immensely improved the condition of the industrial classes throughout the country by providing them with work and instructing them in the practice of domestic economy. Of the prompt and the business-like manner in which he was wont to carry his plans into execution a single example may serve as an illustra-tion. The multitude of beggars in Bavaria had long been a public nuisance and danger. In one day Thompson caused no fewer than 2600 of these outcasts and depredators in Munich and its suburbs alone to be arrested by military patrols, and transferred by them to an industrial establishment which he had prepared for their recep-tion. In this institution they were both housed and fed, and they not only supported themselves by their labours but earned a surplus for the benefit of the electoral revenues. The principle on which their treatment pro-ceeded is stated by Thompson in the following memorable words :—" To make vicious and abandoned people happy," hf says, " it has generally been supposed necessary first to make them virtuous. But why not reverse this order 1 Why not make them first happy, and then virtuous 1" In 1791 he was created a count of the Holy Roman Empire, and chose his title of Rumford from the name as it then was of the American township to which his wife's family belonged. In 1795 he visited England, one incident of his journey being the loss of all his private papers, includ-ing the materials for an autobiography, which were con-tained in a box stolen from off his postchaise in St Paul's Churchyard. During his residence in London he applied himself to the discovery of methods for curing smoky chimneys and the contrivance of improvements in the construction of fireplaces. But he was quickly recalled to Bavaria, Munich being threatened at once by an Austrian and a French army. The elector fled from his capital, and it was entirely owing to Rumford's energy and tact that a hostile occupation of the city was prevented. It was now proposed that he should be accredited as Bavarian am-bassador in London ; but the circumstance that he was a British subject presented an insurmountable obstacle. He, however, again came to England, and remained there in a private station for several years. In 1799 he, in con-junction with Sir Joseph Banks, projected the establishment of the Royal Institution, which received its charter of incorporation from George III. in 1800. Bumford him-self selected Sir Humphry Davy as the first scientific lecturer there. Until 1804, when he definitively settled in France, Rumford lived at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, or at a house which he rented at Bromp-ton, where he passed his time in the steady pursuit of those researches relating to heat and light and the economy of fuel on which his scientific fame is principally based. He then established himself in Paris, and married (his first wife having been dead for many years) as his second wife the wealthy widow of Lavoisier, the celebrated chemist. With this lady he led an extremely uncomfortable life, till at last they agreed to separate. Bumford took up his residence at Auteuil, where he died suddenly in 1814, in the sixty-second year of his age.
He was the founder and the first recipient of the Rumford medal
of the London Royal Society. He was also the founder of the
Rumford medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
and of the Rumford professorship in Harvard university. His
complete works were published by the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences at Boston in 1872 ; and a full and extremely interest-
ing memoir of the author which was issued with them was repub-
lished in London by Messrs Macniillan in 1876. (F. DR.)








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