Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/June 1876/Sketch of Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford)

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 9 June 1876  (1876) 
Sketch of Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford)
PSM V09 D148 Benjamin Thompson.jpg


IN his late work, "Recent Advances in Physical Science," Prof. Tait, of the University of Edinburgh, has attempted a history of dynamical science, or rather of the doctrine of the conservation of energy. Though this great doctrine is recent in its completer development, Prof. Tait holds that it is implied in Newton's laws of motion, and that Newton only failed to grasp it in its modern form for lack of certain experiments. Where Newton broke down, there the subject remained for more than a hundred years, no physicist appearing w r ho could take up the research at that point and carry it on. Prof. Tait says that "what Newton really w anted was to know what becomes of work when it is spent in friction." The experiments thus needed to open the way to a new era in the doctrine of forces were supplied

PSM V09 D252 Birthplace of Benjamin Thompson.jpg
Birthplace of Benjamin Thompson, in North Woburn, Massachusetts.

by a self-educated American, the subject of this sketch. The newspapers say that he is dropping out of memory in this age, and was in his day a distinguished smoke-doctor and improver of fireplaces; but in the scientific world his fame has been increasing in recent years, and is destined to grow brighter with the further progress of physical knowledge. As attention has latterly been drawn to what America has done for science, it is desirable to give an account of the career and labors of this eminent American investigator.

Benjamin Thompson was born March 26, 1753, in Woburn, Massachusetts. He first saw the light in the west end of a substantial farmhouse, which is still standing a few rods south of the meetinghouse in North Woburn. The dwelling is said to be well preserved, retaining its external and internal appearance unchanged, notwithstanding its great age, and it has been recently purchased by the citizens of Woburn, to be preserved as an object of public and historical interest. His father died in his infancy, and when the child was three years old his widowed mother was married to Josiah Pierce, Jr., of Woburn. His latest biographer, Mr. George E. Ellis, says that the lad "indicated from his early years an inconstancy and indifference to the homely routine tasks and the rural employments which were required of him, while at the same time he exhibited an intense mental activity, a spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness, and was found seeking for amusement in things which afterward proved to lead him to the profitable and beneficent occupations of his mature life. He showed a particular ardor for arithmetic and mathematics, and it was remembered of him afterward that his play-time and some of his proper work-time had been given to ingenious mechanical contrivances, soon leading to a curious interest in the principles of mechanics and natural philosophy."

He received the rudiments of a common-school education, and his guardians, finding that he was unfit for a farm-drudge, apprenticed him at thirteen to a merchant in Salem. While thus engaged, with such spare time and private assistance as he could get, he studied algebra, trigonometry, astronomy, and even the higher mathematics, so that before the age of fifteen he was able to calculate an eclipse. At sixteen he was sent to Boston to continue the dry-goods business, and there attended an evening French school. In 1771 he began the study of medicine with Dr. John Hay, of Woburn, and at the same time attended a few lectures at Cambridge. He taught school for a short time at Bradford on the Merrimack, and afterward taught in an academy in Concord, New Hampshire, higher up the same river, a town which had been formerly known as Rumford.

"When Benjamin Thompson went to Concord as a teacher he was in the glory of his youth, not having yet reached manhood. His friend Baldwin describes him as of a fine manly make and figure, nearly six feet in height, of handsome features, bright blue eyes, and dark auburn hair. He had the manners and polish of a gentleman, with fascinating ways, and an ability to make himself agreeable. So diligently, too, had he used his opportunities of culture and reading, that he might well have shone even in a circle socially more exacting than that to which he was now introduced. We may anticipate here the conclusion to which the review of his whole career will lead us, that, as boy or man, he was never one to allow an opportunity of advancement to escape him." At Concord, when nineteen years of age, Mr. Thompson married Sarah Walker Rolfe, a wealthy widow, aged thirty-three, and by whom he had a daughter.

The Revolution was now fermenting, and alienations and discords were springing up among the people. Young Thompson had made the acquaintance of Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire, who, discerning his genius and promise, gave him the military commission of major. This aroused a bitter feeling of jealousy not only in the subordinate officers over whom he had been sprung, but also with his superiors, who were all turned into effective enemies. His independent manners, his intimacy with the royal governor, and, perhaps, inconsiderate words in a time of excitement, led to the suspicion and the charge that Thompson was unpatriotic and sided with the royalists. By the potency of gossip and tale-bearing he was brought under suspicion of Toryism, and threatened with that dignified discipline of outraged patriotism, tar and feathers and riding on a rail. Thompson indignantly denied the accusation. He called for proof, and a meeting of his townsmen was called to consider his case. But no evidence of any kind was produced against him. Nevertheless the adverse feeling in Concord was so strong that he found it necessary to leave. There can be little doubt of the brutal injustice with which Thompson was treated. His biographer writes with evident impartiality, and presents the case in all its aspects, and, admitting that nothing bearing the character of evidence was to be found against his patriotism, he says that "Major Thompson insisted from the first, and steadfastly to the close of his life affirmed, that he was friendly to the patriot cause, and had never done or said anything which could be truthfully alleged as hostile to it." The simple fact seems to be that while young Thompson entertained, and probably expressed, his doubts about the issue of a conflict with the mother-country, as many other independent-minded men must have done, he was nevertheless in sympathy with the patriot cause, and was not only willing to devote himself to it, but earnestly sought the opportunity by petitioning the Provincial Congress for a position in the army. But he was defeated through the machinations of the officers who resented his appointment by Wentworth. His biographer says: "He lingered about the camp. He devoted himself zealously to the study of military tactics. He continued his experiments on gunpowder. He strolled between Woburn, Medford, Cambridge, and Charlestown, learning whatever his inquisitive mind could appropriate. But there was one set of men whom he never could conciliate, who mistrusted his purposes, and cast upon him lowering looks as they met him about the camp. Those were the general and held officers from New Hampshire, who looked upon him as a dandy and an upstart at least, if not also at heart a traitor. They would not associate with him, still less confide in him.” It is further stated on authority, that there is no reason for doubting that “after the battle at Charlestown, Thompson was favorably introduced by some officers of Cambridge to General Washington, who had just assumed the command; and that, had it not been for the opposition of some of the New Hampshire officers, he would have had the place in the American artillery corps which was given to Colonel Gridley.” The genius of Thompson was thus lost to the American cause through the rivalries and hatreds of army officers, a source of evil which profoundly troubled the life of Washington during the Revolution, as it did also that of Lincoln during the civil war.

Nothing was therefore left to Thompson but to remain in obscurity at home under a cloud of suspicion that would have darkened his life, or to seek a field of action elsewhere. He was a man of high spirit and great force of character, and of course would not submit like a poltroon to the degrading alternative. He accordingly took service under the government of his early allegiance. He went to England, and soon after his arrival, at the age of twenty-three, was given an appointment in the colonial office, under Lord George Germaine. He directed immediate attention to military matters; improved the accoutrements of the Horse-Guards; continued and extended his experiments on gunpowder, and improved the construction of firearms. He experimented with great guns, made a study of the principles of naval artillery, and devised a code of marine signals. He also made investigations into the cohesion of bodies, which he communicated to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, and was elected Fellow of that body in 1779 at the age of twenty-six. He very soon became one of the most active and honored members of the Royal Society, always attending its meetings when he was in London. He afterward received a colonelcy from the British Government, and came back to this country in command of a regiment on Long Island, building a fort at Huntington, He returned to England in 1783, and the same year made a tour on the Continent. At Strasburg he accidentally met with Prince Maximilian of Deux Ponts, then field-marshal in the service of France, who became so interested in Colonel Thompson that he gave him an introduction to his uncle the Elector of Bavaria at Munich. The Elector was a man of liberal views, and discerning in Thompson the talent that he thought might be made available in promoting the interests of his government and people, he made overtures to him to enter his service in a joint military and civil capacity. The proposition was favorably received, but, as Colonel Thompson was a half-pay officer of the English crown, he needed to have the permission of the king before making a Continental engagement. He therefore returned to England in 1784, and received not only the king's permission, but also the honor of knighthood and the continuance of his half-pay, and he returned to Munich the same year as Sir Benjamin Thompson. A splendid field was now before him, and he entered upon a series of the most remarkable labors, to which he devoted himself with great assiduity. "These labors ranged from subjects of the homeliest nature in their bearings upon the thrift, economy, and comfort of life for the poorest classes, through enterprises of wide-extended and radical reform, and comprehensive benevolence, up to the severest tests and experiments in the interests of practical science.". . . . "The elector was from first to last his constant friend, never thwarting him, never holding back his aid; but, on the contrary, ready always to advance every plan of his, and to espouse his views when questioned or opposed by other counselors."

It is impossible, in this brief sketch, even to enumerate the extensive and important measures of public beneficence and social amelioration which Sir Benjamin projected and successfully carried out. He reorganized the entire military establishment of Bavaria, introduced not only a simpler code of tactics and a new system of order, discipline, and economy, among the troops and industrial schools for the soldiers' children, but greatly improved the construction and modes of manufacture of arms and ordnance. He devoted himself to various ameliorations, such as improving the construction and arrangement of the dwellings of the working-classes, providing for them a better education, organizing houses of industry, introducing superior breeds of horses and cattle, and promoting landscape-gardening, which he did by converting an old abandoned hunting-ground, near Munich, into a park, where, after his departure, the inhabitants erected a monument to his honor. He moreover suppressed the system of beggary, which had grown into a recognized profession in Bavaria and become an enormous public evil—one of the most remarkable social reforms on record. Mendicity in Bavaria was at that time "a stupendous and organized system of abuses, which, gradually growing upon the tolerance of the government and people, had reached such proportions and had established itself with such a vigorous power of mischief as to be acquiesced in as irremediable. Beggars and vagabonds, the larger part of whom were also thieves, swarmed all over the country, especially in the cities. These were not only natives, but foreigners. They were of both sexes and all ages; they strolled in all directions, lining the highways, levying contributions with clamorous demands, entering houses, stores, and workshops, to rob, interrupting the devotions of the churches with their exactions, and extorting everywhere, through fear, what they failed to get by importunity. These swarms of mendicants and freebooters were in the main composed of strong, healthy, and able-bodied persons, who preferred an easy life of indolence to any kind of industry. They had become the terror and scourge of the country. They would steal, maim, and expose little children, and compel them to extort, by their piteous appeals, a fixed sum for a day's gatherings, with the threat of an inhuman punishment if they failed. Every attempt to suppress this system of outrages having been thwarted, the community had learned to submit and conform to it as admitting of no relief; and this wretched tolerance seemed to double the number of these vagabonds, while it raised beggary into a profession." So systematic and rooted had this state of things become that "the beggars formed a caste in the cities, with professional rules, assigning to them beats and districts, which were disposed of by regulations, in case of the death, promotion, or removal, of the proprietors.

Sir Benjamin resolved upon the extirpation of this system, and the conversion of this lazy and dissolute class into thrifty, self-sustaining laborers. His policy was cautious, deliberate, and wise. He knew exactly what he wished to do, made ample provision for it, and secured the coöperation of the influential classes in the execution of his plan. We cannot describe it here, but its success was complete. The beggars were swept from the streets, cared for, soon set to work, and raised to a condition of self-respecting industry. So effectual was the work that Sir Benjamin won the heart-felt gratitude of the very class upon which he had operated. This is beautifully illustrated by the fact that, "on one occasion, when he was dangerously ill, the poor of Munich went publicly in a body to the cathedral and put up public prayers for his recovery. And again, when, four years afterward, they learned that he was in a similar condition at Naples, they of their own accord set apart an hour each evening, after they had finished their work in the military workhouse, to pray for him."

For the valuable services rendered in Bavaria Sir Benjamin received many distinctions, and, among others, was made Count of the Holy Roman Empire. On receiving this dignity he chose a title in remembrance of the country of his nativity, and was henceforth known as Count of Rumford. His health failing from excessive labor, and what he considered the unfavorable climate, he came back to England in 1798, and had serious thoughts of returning to the United States, having received from the American Government the compliment of a formal invitation to revisit his native land. While in England, Count Rumford organized the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1800, which was designed for the promotion of original discovery and the diffusion of a taste for science among the educated classes. Its success has more than vindicated the sagacity of its founder. He afterward returned to the Continent, and, while frequently visiting Munich, took up his residence in Paris. In 1805 he married the widow of the celebrated French chemist Lavoisier, who was beheaded in the French Revolution. The union, however, not proving a happy one, they soon separated, and Rumford died in his residence at Auteuil the 21st of August, 1814. His first wife had died in 1792, and his daughter, who inherited his title, had come to him at Munich, and returned to America after her father's decease.

The philanthropic interest of Count Rumford in the poor and defective domestic life of the lower classes of society had a great influence in determining the course of his scientific inquiries. It was this feeling that led him to investigate the properties and domestic management of heat. He determined the amount of it arising from the combustion of different kinds of fuel, by means of a calorimeter of his own invention. He reconstructed the fireplace, and so improved the methods of warming apartments and cooking food as to produce a saving of from one-half to seven-eighths of the fuel previously consumed. He improved the construction of stoves, cooking-ranges, coal-grates, and chimneys, and showed that the non-conducting power of cloth is due to the air inclosed among its fibres; and he first pointed out that mode of action of heat called convection; indeed, he was the first clearly to discriminate between the three modes of propagation of heat—radiation, conduction, and convection. He determined the almost non-conducting properties of liquids, investigated the sources of the production of light, and invented a mode of measuring it. He was the first to apply steam generally to the warming of fluids and to culinary operations. He also, as has been stated, experimented extensively upon the use of gunpowder, the strength of materials, and the maximum density of water, and made many valuable and original observations upon an extensive range of subjects, which are described in the essays recently for the first time published in a complete form. As Prof. J. D. Forbes remarks, "all Rumford's experiments were made with admirable precision, and recorded with elaborate fidelity and in the plainest language. Everything with him was reduced to weight and measure, and no pains were spared to obtain the best results."

But it was his investigations concerning the nature of heat that will make him immortal. By experiments in boring cannon he proved its immateriality, and that it does not consist of an imponderable substance or fluid, as implied by the old theory of caloric. In these experiments he demonstrated that the heat generated by friction does not come from any latent source in the materials used, but is derived from the power spent in producing the friction; that its amount is in the ratio of the power expended; that it is a case of the transformation of energy, and a mode of molecular motion. He was half a century in advance of his age, and his researches were long unappreciated; but they are now recognized as forming an epoch in the progress of physical science.