On my way through Washington last week, I was intrigued by the Post’s review of Nicholas Delbanco’s new historical novel, The Count of Concord, about the brilliant and dangerous Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford.
Reviewer Jerome Charyn wrote of Thompson: “He hardly seems to have the flesh or the cunning for the hero of a novel.” This surprises me, given that Thompson was one of the most cunning figures of his age. To be sure, his marriage to Marie Anne Pierrette Lavoisier turned out to be a battle he couldn’t win, but rising from Woburn farmboy to virtual dictator of a German principality shows an above-average nose for opportunity. And along the way he developed the Rumford stove, the vacuum flask, and other scientific advances, and he managed to spy for Great Britain in the Revolution without being discovered until about a century after he had died.
Thompson was one of the main founders of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1799. That scientific organization’s website says:
he drew up the proposals to establish a practical scientific institution which, following a meeting at [Joseph] Banks’s Soho Square house on 7 March 1799, was implemented as what became the Royal Institution. His especial contribution in the Institution’s very early years was in overseeing the conversion of 21 Albemarle Street to make it fit for purpose. He abruptly left the Royal Institution in 1802, possibly because he had been embezzling funds, though this was never proved at the time or subsequently.Unfortunately, now that I’m in London, the institution and its museum aren’t open to visitors. Not that Thompson probably left much behind there.