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The Remarkable American Count

July 2024
14min read

Brilliant Benjamin Thompson won world fame as Count Rumford the scientist but never dispelled his countrymen’s suspicions

On Munich’s bustling Maximilianstrasse, before the huge Bavarian National Museum, is a bronze statue of a tall, elegant, strikingly handsome man in the uniform of a general of the late Eighteenth Century. His chiseled features are framed by a peruke, a military cloak hangs in folds to his knees, across his chest slants the broad riband of an order of knighthood, he swings a tasseled cane as he strides forward arrogantly, and his left hand grasps the plans of the city’s famous Englischer Garten which he conceived and laid out.

That statue was erected by Maximilian II, king of Bavaria, in recognition of the public services of Graf von Rumford, the great minister of an earlier ruler. Yet it is the exceptional American tourist who recognizes in the figure a fellow countryman, and even he seldom knows how to evaluate that strange man. Was he an international scoundrel as rumored from his day to our own, or was he one of the greatest benefactors of the human race—a thinker ranked by Franklin D. Roosevelt beside Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson?

Count Rumford was born plain Benjamin Thompson on a modest Massachusetts farm in 1753. From this unlikely beginning he rose to become an English knight, a count of the Holy Roman Empire, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a member of the Institute of France. During the course of his meteoric career, he played the roles of a medical student, a schoolteacher, a cavalry officer, an influential civil servant, a creative scientist, a tireless inventor, and a de facto dictator of an important European state. All this he owed to his own great genius alone, for he started his incredible life with no advantages whatever save his compelling personality and his strong and restless mind.

The brilliance and capacity which won him worldwide acclaim were counterbalanced in a curious way by faults of character that so marred the mold as to raise serious question whether his services exceeded his villainies. Although he seldom failed to charm anyone upon whom he chose to turn his sparkling conversation and handsome carriage, he could count his true friends on the fingers of one hand. So many men did he alienate that his enemies numbered thousands. His marital life was a shambles: one wife he deserted, with a second he fought in public, and he passed from one mistress to another until in the end he had little to remember and nothing to anticipate. He, personally, destroyed any chance for happiness his only daughter ever had. He unquestionably betrayed the land of his birth and probably England and Bavaria as well. He reached the end of his life in lonely exile—truly a man without a country.

Although bereft of his father when he was an infant, Benjamin Thompson enjoyed a reasonably normal boyhood and was apprenticed to a merchant at thirteen. After working in Salem and in Boston, he returned to his native Woburn to study medicine with Dr. John Hay. It was during this period that he wrote his first scientific paper—an account of an abnormal birth which was not accepted for publication. He improved his grasp of science by attending, with his lifelong friend Loammi Baldwin, the lectures of Professor John Winthrop at Harvard. He also studied French and soon was ready to accept a teaching appointment in nearby Bradford where the Reverend Samuel Williams further stimulated his scientific interests. While there, he had a paper on the aurora borealis rejected, but even in its manuscript state it reveals the care and clarity of his scientific observations.


In the summer of 1772, the selectmen of Rumford (the name was later changed to Concord) invited Thompson to become the schoolmaster in that New Hampshire town. Shortly alter his arrival he was introduced to the rich and comely widow of Colonel Rolfe, a lady fourteen years his senior, who fell in love with him on sight. “I married, or rallier I was married,” Thompson told a friend, “at nineteen.”

On their honeymoon the newlyweds drove in the bride’s canary-colored chaise to Portsmouth, the capital and social center of the province. The Thompsons having been invited to attend a grand military muster at Dover, the most brilliant social event of the year, Benjamin appeared astride a spirited white stallion. Tall in the saddle, broad in the shoulder, and slim in the waist, he cut a striking figure in a scarlet coat, almost indistinguishable from a cavalry jacket, over which he wore a blue hussar cloak faced with scarlet. According to the tradition, the royal governor, John Wentworth, was so impressed that he invited the bridal couple to dine with him and quickly fell under the spell of the extraordinary young Yankee. The Governor became his enthusiastic patron.

Socially the ex-schoolteacher had much to recommend him. He had the polished manners of a patrician, which was surprising in view of his humble background. He conversed entertainingly and authoritatively on a vast variety of topics, he was always impeccably turned out, and he had a rich wife. He happily joined the Governor’s circle. He accepted a majority in the 15th Regiment of New Hampshire militia which, even though largely a paper unit, represented a high honor. He agreed to accompany the Governor on an exploring expedition to the White Mountains which, but for the unsettlement of the times, would have been carried through.

The troublous times, indeed, soon ruffled Thompson’s serenity despite his big white house on the Merrimack and his new consequence in the community. He has often been pictured as an upright man caught in the developing Revolutionary movement with his guard down and pushed by overzealous patriots into the Tory camp. But this was not the case. Long before the Battle of Lexington, he had accommodated his outlook to that of the Governor and his loyalist friends. He engaged in activities which opposed the efforts of the patriots, but in common with thousands of other loyalists he could believe, “I never did any action … that may have the most distant tendency to injure the true interests of this my native country.”

In 1775 he was haled before the local Committee of Safety on suspicion of getting British regulars to round up deserters and send them back to General Thomas Gage in Boston. This was exactly what he was doing, but because it was impossible to prove, he was released. Nevertheless, the cloud of distrust hung so heavy about him that he fled from his wife, his infant daughter, and his fine home to seek refuge in his native Woburn. There his activities became treason if they had not been so before. Open loyalty to the Crown was scarcely reprehensible, however the patriots might complain, but Thompson sent secret intelligence reports to Gage while at the same time he denied every charge brought against him. One still existing letter, written in secret ink, constitutes damning and irrefutable evidence of his guilt, although it was not available to the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence at the time when it weighed new accusations of treason. Once again he was cleared. But once again his position had become untenable.

Thompson rode to Narragansett Bay where he boarded a frigate of the Royal Navy and was conveyed within the British lines at Boston. He then wrote out a brilliant and detailed report on the “State of the Rebel Army” which did much to recommend him to those who read it, including the colonial secretary in London, Lord George Germain. Indeed, when Thompson found his way to London, he so impressed Germain that he found a new patron and one with even greater powers than the Governor of New Hampshire. The American spy rose rapidly. First assigned posts within the Colonial Office, he was soon appointed secretary of the Province of Georgia and in 1780 became undersecretary of state for the Northern Department. London rumors whispered that his manifold positions now yielded him the princely income of nearly £7,000 a year.

Despite his numerous official duties Thompson found time to continue experiments in explosives and heat which he had begun in America. His primary objective was to increase effective firing range, and it was in connection with this aim that Germain arranged a cruise on H.M.S. Victory, which was later to become Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar. While aboard, he observed the hopelessly inadequate system of signaling in use by the fleet and designed a better one. The Navy actually adopted and for a time used Thompson’s signaling system. In the year of his cruise, he was also welcomed into the scientific fraternity with election as a fellow of the Royal Society.

Meanwhile, Thompson found his great successes threatened with disaster. Rumors plagued him throughout his life, and the gossip mongers now held that he was somehow involved with the celebrated French spy La Motte, who was publicly drawn and quartered. This time the evidence is not conclusive, but it appears that there was some fire at the source of the smoke. Germain apparently protected his protege by bringing pressure and threats in the proper quarters, but Thompson’s enemies were not appeased. For a third time he had to run away.

Germain was still in office when “the Woburn lad” gave up his rich living and sailed for America to serve as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of the King’s American Dragoons which had not yet been raised. Although New York was his destination, Thompson found himself marooned in Charleston, South Carolina, when his ship put in there and then sailed away before he could get back aboard—all a plot of his English enemies, he felt. Arriving after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, he served for a time under General Alexander Leslie in South Carolina. There was nothing in his background to suggest that he had the makings of a competent cavalry officer. But his superior writes of him as “an enterprising young officer with an uncommon share of merit and zeal,” and his opponent, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, describes in his Memoirs how Thompson’s dragoons surprised and almost annihilated a much larger American force in the High Hills of the Santee.

When he did reach New York, the problem was to raise the regiment to which he was assigned. From nowhere, he collected his horsemen and even brought the unit to lull complement. Quartered in Huntington, Long Island, during the winter of 1782-83, he revealed another facet of his character and earned the undying hatred of that town. He stabled his horses in the local church and located his camp in the cemetery. Reputedly, he also had bread baked on the tombstones so that the inscriptions showed on the undersides of the loaves.

Before the end of the war, Thompson returned to England, but he did not linger. He stayed only long enough to obtain his promotion to colonel and to secure his half-pay pension for life. Then he announced his intention of becoming a soldier of fortune and of offering his sword to the Austrians in their struggle with the Turks. He crossed the Channel with Edward Gibbon, a singularly unprepossessing little man, bulbously fat and under five feet in height but of the first rank as a historian, and Henry Laurens, late president of the American Congress. “Mr. Secretary, Colonel, Admiral, Philosopher Thompson,” as Gibbon dubbed him, was still a young man—barely thirty years old. Arresting in his appearance, he had the ease and grace of a courtier, the erect carriage and clipped speech of a soldier, and the air of one accustomed to command. With these assets, he set out unhurriedly for Vienna.


Thompson never missed an opportunity of meeting and cultivating persons who might be useful to him. When he learned at Strasbourg that the garrison was to be reviewed by Prince Maximilian of Deux-Ponts, he resorted to the same stratagem he had employed successfully years before with Governor Wentworth. He appeared on the Strasbourg parade ground astride a showy charger in the conspicuous uniform of his former regiment, the King’s American Dragoons. Maximilian invited this distinguished foreigner to join him and was captivated. He gave the Colonel an enthusiastic letter of introduction to his uncle, Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, and urged him to stop at Munich for a visit.

The Bavarian Elector was so favorably impressed that he invited the visitor to enter his service. Thompson hesitated for a time, continued his trip to Vienna, and then accepted—subject to the approval of his own sovereign. For this permission he had to return to England.

In view of George III’s expressed lack of enthusiasm for the man, his reception in London was surprising.

He was granted permission to enter the Bavarian service, and more—he was knighted. He returned to Munich as Sir Benjamin Thompson. The reason for this striking honor was partly to give him an English rank commensurate with his new office. But there was something else in the picture too. Even as he accepted service with the Elector, he made explicit arrangements with Sir Robert Murray Keith for the secret exchange of intelligence.

The fifteen years that followed were full of opportunity and achievement in both public administration and science. As grand chamberlain, lieutenant general, minister of war, and minister of police, he became the Elector’s most trusted adviser. He worked effectively to establish order and efficiency in the badly disordered state of Bavaria. Many of his reforms affected primarily the army but he had a lasting impact upon the populace as well—particularly the poor of Munich.

The multitude of diseased and importunate beggars in Munich had long been a public scandal-in all of Europe only Rome was reputed to have more. This condition struck Sir Benjamin with more force than could have been felt by any European because beggars were virtually unknown in America. By ordering the arrest in a single day of 2,600 beggars, he eradicated mendicancy and its attendant evils at a stroke. Instead of being jailed, they were ordered to report to the newly prepared House of Industry where warm rooms, warm food, training, and productive work awaited them. The experience had a remarkable effect upon the former beggars. Many were returned to respectable private employment. The others earned a satisfactory living at the same time that they produced shoes and clothing for the army at a profit to the state.

“It has always been assumed,” Sir Benjamin remarked, “that vicious and abandoned persons must be reformed before they can be made happy. Instead, why not make them happy before trying to reform them?”

With only slightly less success, he reorganized the Bavarian Army, whose efficiency and morale had fallen almost to the vanishing point. Here also he thought in terms of giving work to men who were required to serve but were seldom engaged in warfare or in any other occupation. He raised the pay of the troops, greatly improved their rations, uniforms, and quarters, established vocational schools, organized sports and competitions, and gave the men land for gardens and vacations with their families. In a short time a sullen, discontented rabble had been transformed into an effective soldiery.

One entire army corps was set to work to provide a public park for all classes of people and, incidentally, to demonstrate Thompson’s talents in landscape gardening. The Elector having placed at his disposal 600 acres of swamps and waste lands in the environs of Munich, he drained them and laid out the famous Englischer Garten, one of the most beautiful public parks in the world.

In recognition of his services to Bavaria, the Elector bestowed on him the highest honor he could give a foreigner by creating him a count of the Holy Roman Empire. This he was able to do in his capacity as viceregent of the empire during the brief interval after the death of the old emperor, Leopold, and the crowning of the new. It is indicative of Thompson’s feeling for America that he chose for his title, Rumford, the name of the obscure New Hampshire town where he had taught school and married and where he had escaped tarring and feathering only by flight.

Count Rumford’s fame in Bavaria rested in large part upon his social reforms, and by these achievements he was known as well to the rest of Europe, but his permanent reputation depends much more upon his scientific work, much of which he carried through while serving the Elector. The most important of the more than seventy scientific papers he wrote dealt with heat and most of them with the problem of “caloric.” In his day, there was a distinct division among scientific men between those who considered heat a form of energy-a mode of motion-and those who believed that heat was caused by the addition of a fluid called “caloric.” Rumford became the great protagonist of the energy theory of heat. He devised a series of experiments which disposed of one after another of the arguments of the caloricists.

Most famous of all was his cannon-boring experiment, in which he demonstrated the heat produced by the friction which is involved in boring out a solid casting for a six-pounder cannon. The casting was insulated by being immersed in water which was quickly raised to the boiling point. The energy theory was not fully accepted for another sixty years, but Rumford’s conclusion was irrefutable: “anything which any insulated body, or system of bodies, can continue to furnish without limitation, cannot possibly be a material substance.” He saw no alternative, “except it be motion.”

The Count went on to obtain a figure for the mechanical equivalent of heat, that is, the amount of mechanical work required to raise a given quantity of water a single degree. He plagued the caloricists by showing that water expanded when cooled below 4° centigrade as well as when it was heated above that temperature, by demonstrating that heat could travel through a vacuum, and by revealing that a converging lens was heated as much as a diverging lens. Rumford, too, was the first to describe convection currents.


In 1795 Count Rumford journeyed to London to supervise the publication of his Essays, Political, Economical, and Historical, which did much to make his reputation in the world of science. While there, he enjoyed again English intellectual society, accepted membership in the Royal Irish Academy, and summoned from the other side of the Atlantic his now-grown daughter, whom he had not seen since she was the tiniest infant.

His stay in London was brought to a sudden end by the arrival of a courier with a frantic message from the Elector imploring his immediate return to Munich. Bavaria’s precarious neutrality was threatened by armies of the hostile states of Austria and France, both of which were driving toward the capital. The Elector informed Rumford that he had appointed him president of a council of regency with plenary powers and that the fate of Bavaria depended upon him. Charles Theodore then fled to Saxony while the Count closed the gates of the city, mobilized all the forces he could, and prevailed upon both the French and the Austrians to abandon their intention of entering Munich. Thus, quite probably, he prevented serious damage to the capital and won the renewed gratitude of the Bavarians and their sovereign.

Yet despite his efficiency and effectiveness, he had raised as many bitter enemies in Bavaria as he did everywhere else. By 1798 the rising opposition had become so great that the Elector accepted the prudent course and permitted Rumford to retire to England. He sought, however, to retain Rumford’s services by appointing him Bavarian minister to that nation. This England refused, ostensibly because he was a British subject, but also because of objections to the man based upon his past.

At the zenith of his career, he thought much about America during the busy years in England that followed. As early as 1793, he had inquired of his only American friend, Loammi Baldwin, whether he would be permitted to visit his native land. With this question still unsettled, he next donated approximately equal funds to Boston’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the Royal Society, to found the Rumford Medals for research in heat or light. In 1799 he made known to the American minister in London his interest in being appointed superintendent of the United States Military Academy. With the plans for the academy then being formulated, this project was looked upon favorably by the unknowing until, once again, his past record was called up to frustrate any such appointment.

Much of Rumford’s energy was diverted into the founding of the Royal Institution, whose imposing building stands at the top of Albemarle Street in London. The honorable purpose was to establish helpful and practical relations between scientists and working men. But this founder was a choleric, contentious sort; by 1802 he had a falling out with the trustees of the institution, including Humphrey Davy, whom he himself had chosen. Shortly thereafter he left England in haughty anger, never to return.

Repairing to Paris, he was joined by his daughter, whose romances he had systematically broken up. In 1805—his first wife having died many years before he married Madame Lavoisier, the widow of the celebrated chemist who had been guillotined during the Revolution. The Count’s eccentricities would have made any marriage difficult, but it was quite impossible to harmonize his desire for quiet with her need for a full social life. After four years they separated. He withdrew to a pleasant home in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, where he continued his scientific writing.

Rumford’s science always had a distinctly practical cast. Its applications fascinated him and, at one time or another, he introduced many useful inventions. To further experimentation, he devised the shadow photometer which is still used to test the intensity of different light sources and a new calorimeter to measure the heat of combustion products. He improved the Argand lamp; solved, finally, the problem of smoky chimneys; and invented the Rumford stove for heating. Much concerned about cooking and food, he described a pressure cooker and a drip coffee pot. And he invented the so-called Rumford roaster. Recipes also sprang from his culinary interests; among them “Rumford soup” was the most celebrated.

Unquestionably a genius and benefactor of mankind, Rumford died a troubled man who knew he had brought little happiness to those with whom he had been most intimate. Baron Cuvier, one of the few who had good to say of him, confessed that although he rendered many “services to his fellowmen, he had no real love or regard for them.” Even Loammi Baldwin admitted that he was “too much attached to greatness and splendor.”

Rumford never achieved the satisfaction he always pursued. Permitted to live in France at the sufferance of Napoleon, he made clear in his will the price he had paid for fame and achievement. After providing for his daughter, he made only two significant grants. He offered his military library to the government of the United States to be placed in its Military Academy. To Harvard College he bequeathed funds, including the reversion of his whole estate, for the establishment of a new professorship. Plaintively this last testament finally expressed the wish that his daughter would make her home in the United States.

This strange, restless man has been, as he should be, honored for his attainments and for his contributions. He can only be pitied for his failings. It was perhaps in this spirit that Woburn, which witnessed his early genius and expelled him for his early transgressions, has also erected a bronze statue of her most illustrious son, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.

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