Rumford: The Strange Forgotten Life of America's Other Ben Franklin, by an Author So Fascinated He's Writing a Novel about Him

By Delbanco, Nicholas | American Heritage, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Rumford: The Strange Forgotten Life of America's Other Ben Franklin, by an Author So Fascinated He's Writing a Novel about Him


Delbanco, Nicholas, American Heritage


History, we're told, is written by the victors; a nation tends to focus on its patriots, not its traitors, and those who depart are forgotten when gone. But the history of revolution in America and the "revolt of the colonies" are two faces of a single coin: the choice of independence was a nearer thing than at present we portray it, and several of the best minds of the period were uncertain which side to support.

"Many-sided men," Franklin Delano Roosevelt told an interviewer in 1932, "have always attracted me. I have always had the keenest interest in five men. . . . of comparatively modern times." They were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. Of Roosevelt's list, the last named is the only one not now a household word. Yet in certain circles while he lived - the scientific community, for example, and the townspeople of Munich - the count seemed nonpareil.

Some twenty years ago I owned a farm with several fireplaces, one of them formal and shallow and tall. I couldn't make it work, although it clearly had before; it smoked and sputtered out. I gave it up, left it alone, till one of his adepts appeared and said, "Rumford. It's a Rumford fireplace!" and showed me how to use it, to stand the kindling up and set the logs upright. Hey, presto, everything was heat!

Then ten years passed, fifteen. A friend of mine is a physicist whose specialty is heat transfer, and he told me he was working on the theories of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. The name rang a dull bell; it signified, dimly, that smoke-charged and then splendid fireplace, and I asked my friend to tell me, in twenty-five words or more, what interested him about the man and the mind. He did so, speaking of heat transfer and Thompson's proof that heat was not a substance in and of itself. He spoke of Thompson's contributions to practical science, to the dissemination of knowledge and machinery, to his work as a soldier and spy. Then he mentioned the man's private Life; the words he used were " scoundrel," "rake," and "wag." To a novelist such language is well-nigh irresistible. The subject declared itself and would not go away. I set to work writing a historical novel based on Rumford's life.

Benjamin Thompson was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753; he died on the outskirts of Paris, as Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, at the age of sixty-one. His titles had come to include Knight of the Orders of the White Eagle and St. Stanislaus and Privy Counsellor of State, and Lieutenant General in the Service of His Most Serene Highness the Elector Palatine, Reigning Duke of Bavaria. He was a man of consequence - mistrusted by the French, the Germans, the Americans, and the English equally - so his burial could not go unremarked. The mourners, however, were few. This was Napoleon's city, near the end of a protracted war, and Thompson was in lifelong exile from the country of his birth. Here, in translation, is the address pronounced over his grave by Baron Benjamin Delessert, on the twenty-fourth of August, 1814.

"It is permitted to me, my friends, as a member of the Administration of Hospitals, to be the medium of expressing our sorrow at the loss of the distinguished man who was pleased to honor me with his friendship. I leave it to more eloquent voices to speak of the productions of his rare genius; to boast of his numerous discoveries in the sciences, and his ingenious methods of penetrating to the secrets of nature; to describe his theory of heat, his experiments upon light, his observations upon combustion, upon steam, upon gunpowder; and to commemorate him as the founder of the Royal Institution of London.

"I wish here and now only to recall to your minds those of his most directly useful and beneficent works which have made his name known in every part of Europe. Who is ignorant of what he has done for relieving the scarcity in food; of his multiplied efforts for making food more healthful, more agreeable, and above all, more economical; what service he has rendered to humanity in introducing the general use of the soups which go by his own name, and which have been so invaluable to so many thousands of persons exposed to the horrors of the prevailing scarcity? …

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