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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Monday, May 16, 2011

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 3

The teen-aged Benjamin Thompson was clearly excited to be working in Boston in 1769, not in his home town of Woburn or even the smaller port of Salem. He sketched his master Hopestill Capen’s building in his notebook, marking the shop where he worked and the dormer attic room where he lived.

Benjamin signed up for private lessons in French and “the Back-Sword” from a Scottish army veteran named Donald McAlpine, and drew fencers in his notebook. Then he ended up skipping half the French lessons.

Meanwhile, Benjamin was supposed to be working in Capen’s dry-goods shop. But according to an 1837 profile in The American Journal of Science and Arts:

Mr. Capen once told his [Benjamin’s] mother, that “he oftener found her son under the counter, with gimblets, knife, and saw, constructing some little machine, or looking over some book of science, than behind it, arranging the cloths or waiting upon customers.”
According to his home-town friend Loammi Baldwin, Benjamin was already working on a perpetual-motion machine, and that’s bound to take up all of one’s time.

By the spring of 1770, Benjamin Thompson was back at his mother’s house in Woburn, having shown he was thoroughly unsuited for work as an apprentice. But he was on his way to becoming Count Rumford, one of the greatest scientists of his age.


Daud said...

This guy is my new favorite character in 18th century Boston!

I'd already heard a couple of stories about this ladies-man from your blog- but I didn't know he was so interesting from the start.

I love the colorful characters around him too- I can just imagine his longsuffering masters and the grizzled old MacAlpine teaching the lad to fence.

Looking forward to the rest.

Donald said...

More than a bit of Barrie Lyndon in his story!

Kit said...

Thanks for the surprise ending1

Jen said...


Citoyen david said...

This is the same person that was a Loyalist, spy and tratior to our revolution? He and Church?

J. L. Bell said...

Thompson was a Loyalist and (in 1775) a spy. As to whether he was a traitor, that depends on one's point of view, doesn't it?

There's no definite evidence that Thompson worked with Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., but it's a possibility. A couple of weeks after Church was arrested, Thompson quickly left home and sailed into Boston, never to return.

Thompson is a wonderful source of gossipy stories, so click on his name above for more.