Book Review: Count Rumford: The Extraordinary Life of a Scientific Genius (by G.I. Brown) : MHQ | HistoryNet
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Book Review: Count Rumford: The Extraordinary Life of a Scientific Genius (by G.I. Brown) : MHQ

8/12/2001 • MHQ Reviews, Reviews

Count Rumford: The Extraordinary Life of a Scientific Genius, by G.I. Brown, Sutton, $21.95.

This small volume chronicles the life of one of the world’s great scientists, Benjamin Thompson. Born on March 26, 1753, on a farm near Woburn, Massachusetts, Thompson became a spy for the British against the United States, a British colonel and count, a lieutenant general in the Bavarian army, and an imperial count of the Holy Roman Empire.

Brown provides the reader with a straightforward biographical account including Thompson’s birth and youth in America, service to the British crown and European adventures and fortunes. The emphasis, understandably, is primarily on Rumford’s scientific contributions and not his military record. His academic pursuits were, however, often closely linked to military affairs. For example, when he was appointed Bavarian minister of war in 1788, Rumford conducted experiments on the heat retention and dissipation characteristics of various uniform materials. Through these trials he learned about convection and the warmth-producing air-entrapment qualities of wool. The result was the first scientific basis for cotton garments for summer and wool for winter–a departure from the era’s conventions. He also conducted gunpowder trials that yielded a firmer understanding of the nature of explosions and a scientific explanation of the energy expended in a bullet or cannon ball strike. In creating cooking facilities for a Bavarian military hospital, the enterprising Massachusetts native designed an efficient kitchen stove that more closely resembles today’s ranges than the cook fires of his own day. Outside of his military endeavors, Rumford was apparently the first to come up with the basic home fireplace design that is used to this day.

Count Rumford’s actual military experience was quite limited. Beginning as a spy using invisible ink to communicate the 1775 dispositions and activities of George Washington’s fledgling Continental Army, Rumford fled with the evacuation of Boston in 1776. He gained and used political connections in London to become inspector general of provincial forces and was appointed a lieutenant colonel in command of the King’s American Dragoons in 1781. Arriving in New York in 1782 after the Battle of Yorktown, the dragoons were absorbed in rather placid occupation duties until the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Returning to London, Rumford retired on half pay, was knighted, and went to the continent. He landed progressively more important military positions in Bavaria, ultimately becoming a lieutenant general. Alternating between London and Bavaria, Rumford found himself in command of Munich and facing both an Austrian and a French army in the summer of 1796. Playing each against the other, the wily Rumford managed to avoid a disaster without the loss of a single soldier.

Brown depicts Rumford’s many scientific discoveries and papers on the nature of heat as his greatest gifts to mankind. Indeed, his achievements in the field of thermodynamics are comparable with Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to the study of electricity. Each of these Americans laid a groundwork of fundamental truths that stimulated and nurtured the scientific revolution. Count Rumford: The Extraordinary Life of a Scientific Genius is an enjoyable and edifying book.

Rod Paschall

 

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