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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Count Rumford

A mind once opened to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensionR.W.Emerson

In 1980, when I decided to spend a Sabbatical year at the Royal Institution in London, it was because of the science being done there. I didn’t realize then that it was the oldest independent research body in the world with a fascinating history! For instance, the story of its founder Benjamin Thompson [later Count Rumford], is worth recounting.

Benjamin started out as a simple farm boy in rural Massachusetts who happened to have had a good teacher who recognized Ben’s talents and arranged for him to attend lectures at Harvard with an older student. Thus when Ben was only about 12, the two used to walk to Cambridge together to attend the lectures of John Winthrop, a science and mathematics professor. That contact introduced Benjamin to the excitement and methods of science and set him on his path of life-long experimental investigations.

Thompson was not only bright but an opportunist and, with his good looks, he did extremely well as a young apprentice to a merchant in Salem. Through this work, he came into contact with and imitated the manners of refined and educated people he had dealings with so that in 1772 when he was just 19, he charmed and married a rich older widow in Concord. Those were the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War and, because of his loyalist sympathies he was forced to flee to Boston where he became a spy for the British.

When Boston fell to the rebels, Thompson sailed to England where he rose in the government and had the opportunity to conduct scientific experiments particularly on the force of gunpowder. This work was published by the prestigious Royal Society and led to his being widely recognized as a scientist.

With the War over and a pension, Thompson traveled on the Continent eventually settling in Bavaria where he was invited to be an advisor to Prince Theodor. Observing many vagrants and idle soldiers in the streets, he set up soup kitchens and adult schools to teach mechanics and other useful trades. As well he devised make work projects, encouraged the growing of potatoes and in general improved the lot of the destitute making him a trailblazer in social reform. He was also a prolific inventor creating many practical applications like kitchen ranges, percolator coffee pots, and lighting devices that helped the poor and homeless. For his work he was granted the title Count Rumford.

At one time he investigated fireplaces by installing glass doors and, through careful observation of smoke patterns, he was able to come up with a device that made fireplaces and stoves draw well. The diagram on the right shows the smoke shelf he designed that turned the downdraft around so that it drew the smoke from the fire up through a narrow opening. As well, the damper in the throat could be adjusted to make the fire burn more efficiently. He also redesigned the firebox with sloping sides so its heated surfaces radiated warmth into the room.

After 11 years in Bavaria Rumford returned to England, made a fortune installing smoke shelves in British chimneys and, with his own money, founded [and supported] the Royal Institution. Its aim was to introduce new technologies [which is now translated as basic research] and to teach science to the general public, which it does to this day.

Though his name may be often recalled in connection with the Rumford fireplace design, he will always be renowned for his important scientific breakthrough that centered on the nature of heat as molecular motion.

Pretty interesting life for a poor farm boy whose mind was opened to new ideas by an early encounter. Rie

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