J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Benjamin Thompson’s Flesh and Cunning

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.


Anonymous said...

You can find a nice silhouette of Rumford in your local grocery store - just stroll down the baking aisle: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/518AZCKPSNL._SL500_.jpg
And guess what, folks? It's both gluten AND aluminum-free!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, indeed, thought it’s significant that Thompson/Rumford himself didn’t have anything to do with the development of Rumford Baking Powder. The inventor, Eben Norton Horsford (1818-1893), named his product in honor of the count, then known mainly as a brilliant scientist.

I’m not sure Horsford would have made the same decision if American historians of his time had known about Rumford’s spying for the British during 1775, and other real and rumored activities during the Revolutionary War. Then again, the count’s scientific achievements are indubitable.

Anonymous said...

I was quite amused several years ago to see that the Boston Harbor Hotel had named its lower grille room after Thompson. The staff had no idea that he had been a spy for the Brits.

Anonymous said...

Thompson's loyalist leanings were well known to his fellow townsmen, particularly in New Hampshire where he and his wife were living before he deserted her after being disappointed by not receiving a commission from the non-royal government.

As for the Rumford Baking Powder, Horsford named it for Rumsford, because prior to his manufacturing days, Horsford had held the "Rumsford Chair" in the Science Department at Harvard.

While I have no doubt that Thompson makes an appealing "Flashman-like" character, I still think there is much to be learned about his real life here in America.