Benjamin Thompson played a part in the American Revolution and the revolution in thermodynamics – and then became the German Count Rumford, taking his name from a New Hampshire town.
Like his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Thompson was a prolific inventor whose involvement with European government won him wide acclaim. Unlike Franklin, Thompson took the Loyalist side in the American Revolution.
He would be knighted in England and elevated to Count Rumford after reorganizing the Bavarian army and setting up workhouses for the poor in Munich. He made important discoveries about heat and light and invented the Rumford fireplace, an industrial furnace, thermal underwear, a drip coffeepot and a cheap, nutritious soup for poor people.
His soup recipe was used well into the 20th century to feed Central European armies. The soldiers may not have been grateful.
Benjamin Thompson was born on March 26, 1753 in Woburn, Mass. He was educated at the village school, though he sometimes joined his friend Loammi Baldwin at Harvard College to listen to Professor John Winthrop.
At 13, he was apprenticed to a Salem merchant. Later he became apprenticed to a Woburn doctor.
His career prospects were dim in 1772 until he met and married a rich widow, Sarah Rolfe. She had inherited property in Rumford (now Concord), N.H. They moved to Portsmouth, N.H., and Thompson was named a major in the New Hampshire militia through his wife’s connections.
When the revolution broke out, he took the Loyalist side. A mob burned his house, and he fled to the British lines, permanently abandoning his wife.
While aiding the British, he conducted experiments on the force of gunpowder, which won him celebrity as a scientist. When the British troops evacuated Boston, he was charged with giving an account of what happened to Lord George Sackville, secretary of state for North America in Lord North’s cabinet. Sackville was impressed with Thompson and named him undersecretary.
When the North government fell in 1782 – and Sackville took the blame for losing the war — Thompson joined the army. In 1785, he ended up in Munich.
Thompson spent the next 11 years in Munich as an aide to Prince Elector Charles Theodore. He was placed in charge of the police and the war department, where he equipped the army and improved discipline. He established the Englischer Garden in Munich, one of the world’s largest urban parks.
All the while he experimented with heat and light.
Thompson was elevated to Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791, and he took the name Rumford from the town where he was married.
During the 1790s, Count Rumford worked on improving fireplaces. He invented a tall, shallow fireplace with angled walls that reflect heat into the room. He also restricted the chimney opening to increase the updraught.
The Rumford fireplace became a sensation in London, and Count Rumford became world famous. Thomas Jefferson installed a Rumford fireplace at Monticello.
Workhouses and Soup
In Munich, Count Rumford was charged with removing the throngs of beggars from the streets, where they had become a nuisance. A glowing account of his success was later described in Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad, by Anna Brownell Jameson.
There are no poor laws at Munich, no mendicity societies, no tract, and soup, and blanket charities; yet pauperism, mendicity, and starvation are nearly unknown. For the system of regulations by which these evils have been repressed, or altogether remedied, I believe Bavaria is indebted to the celebrated American, Count Rumford.
Thompson ordered the beggars taken to the magistrate. They were told they couldn’t beg anymore, but that everything necessary for their subsistence would be provided to them at the new workhouse. There they found apartments, tools and food (presumably Rumford’s Soup), and were paid for piecework. The workhouse became profitable.
The Supplement to the Connecticut Courant on March 9, 1832 includes a story about the beggars’ gratitude for the workhouse. Thompson had taken ill, the story goes, and from his sickbed heard the sound of the poor marching in a procession to church to pray for his recovery. He was affected deeply, as he was Protestant and the poor were Catholic.
Thompson came up with the recipe for Rumford’s Soup because the Bavarian government wanted a cheap, nutritious ration for prisoners and the poor. It isn’t particularly good. Rumford’s Soup was used as a base for military rations in Central Europe during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
From 1799 he spent the rest of his life in England and France, dying in Paris on Aug. 21, 1814.
The Benjamin Thompson House-Count Rumford Birthplace is now a museum in Woburn.
And here’s the recipe for Rumford’s Soup:
1 part pearl barley
1 part dried (yellow) peas
4 parts potato
salt according to need
Old, sour beer
Slowly boil until thick. Eat with bread.
This story was updated in 2017.