Today, we meet a Bavarian count who was born in
colonial Massachusetts. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Years ago, my wife and I
strolled through the People's Park in Munich,
Germany. That lovely two-mile natural preserve with
trees and a river running through it forms a huge
part of the city.
The park was designed by Benjamin Thompson, an
American who was raised in Woburn, Massachusetts,
just before the American Revolution. He wrestled
out a homemade education in Boston and, when he was
only 18, went off to Rumford, Massachusetts, as its
new schoolmaster. He soon married a wealthy
31-year-old widow in Rumford. He also took up
spying on the colonies for the British.
When the colonists learned what he was up to, he
deserted his wife and a new daughter and fled to
England. There he devoted himself to shameless
social climbing that eventually put him in a
high-ranking position with the Bavarian court in
His life took on a new coloration in Bavaria. He
used his technical insight to institute social
reforms that were years ahead of their time. He
devised public works, military reforms, and
poorhouses. He equipped them with radical kitchen,
heating, and lighting systems. He created that
lovely People's Park.
When he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire
he did a surprising thing -- he took the name of
the town he'd once fled -- the name of Rumford. And
it's Count Rumford whom history remembers. He's
most famous for experiments he made five years
later while he was working with field artillery. He
found that, by boring a cannon barrel under water
with a blunt bit, he could heat the water to
boiling and then keep it boiling.
People at the time thought that heat was a fluid --
a kind of aether, called caloric, that flowed in
and out of materials. Caloric was the last of the
old Aristotelian essences -- earth, air, water, and
fire. It was supposed to be indestructible and
uncreatable. Rumford's results flew in the face of
the caloric theory. Now it was clear that
mechanical work could go on creating caloric as
long as anyone might wish.
Rumford's story takes a last ironic turn. The
French chemist, Lavoisier, who was beheaded during
the French Revolution, had given caloric its name.
When Rumford left Bavaria for England and France,
he took up with Lavoisier's widow. Their four-year
relationship ended in a short and disastrous
marriage. Before the marriage Rumford crowed:
I think I shall live to drive caloric off the
stage as the late Lavoisier drove away [the theory
before it]. What a singular destiny for the wife of
Count Rumford had, indeed, been instrumental in
driving caloric off the stage, and setting a
foundation for the first law of thermodynamics. But
is it any great surprise that the marriage failed!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds