Sunday, September 5, 2010

From Cannonballs to Coffeepots

Benjamin Thompson, a/k/a Count Rumford

First, a digression. We Americans value niceness. In our culture, it is just as important to be nice as to be good. It is not enough to do the right thing, to simply be honest and charitable. We also should be really nice. In our books and movies, the good guy is nice and pleasant. The bad guy is rude and mean. 

It is not so in all cultures.  Some years back, I attended a seminar at the East West Center in Honolulu. Most of my fellow attendees were Asian, while the instructors were American. In private, my comrades grumbled that the instructors seemed cloying and insincere. "If they have something to say," one remarked after a round of class presentations, "They should just say it." The instructors were all-American. They smiled a lot when they spoke to the class and criticism was preceded with a compliment. The Asians hated it.

In another example, before a trip to France I read up on French culture, and was struck by the separation of helpfulness from niceness. This is a problem for the French when working with American tourists, because in the French view, it is not necessary to be nice in order to he helpful. But Americans often come away from encounters with tour guides, hotel clerks, train conductors and the like feeling like they've been assaulted. Although they might have been given good information and treated fairly, the tourists didn't get the smiley face and have-a-nice-day attitude that Americans expect. 

I guess that's why I'm so fascinated with the man who started the first school lunch program for poor children. He was an amazing person -- an inventor, an innovator, a man who did many things for the betterment of society. But he was not nice. His biographers use words like "despicable" to describe him. 
Benjamin Thompson Birthplace

Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in a home that is now a museum listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. His father, a farmer, died before little Benjamin reached the age of two. The boy was educated in the village school and soon realized that farming was not for him. He had a mind for science and studied hard. He even walked to Cambridge to attend lectures at Harvard College by the distinguished mathematician and physicist, John Winthrop. He became a teacher, and moved to Concord, New Hampshire (formerly called Rumford) to accept a teaching position in 1772. There, he met and married a wealthy widow who was 14 years older than him -- and he instantly gained the wealth and status that he craved. 

When the Revolution started, he took the side of the British. The local populace suspected that he was a British spy (which he was) and when an angry mob came after him, he fled, abandoning his wife and child, forever. He moved to Boston, where he continued his spy activities and recruited people to the British cause, until he joined the British evacuation of Boston in 1776. 

In London, he conducted experiments on gunpowder and continued his scientific studies with guns and cannons.  For his service to the crown, he was knighted. He became famous within military circles for his work with gunpowder and munitions, and in 1783, accepted the position of Major-General and Privy Counselor to the Elector of Bavaria. He moved to Munich. 
Thompson's illustration of his cannon-boring experiments

During his travels in Europe, he met an elderly lady who had a strong influence on him. All that is known of her is in one line of a letter that he wrote, that this unnamed woman "opened my eyes to other kinds of glory than that of victory in battle."  

After meeting this woman, he devoted the rest of his life to the betterment of mankind.  He stayed in Bavaria for five years and became a pioneer in the Social Reform Movement. One of the many good things he did there was found the Poor People's Institute, which provided food and work for the poor. He also started a school for poor children, which included lunch. This place was not paradise. Everyone was expected to work. And the food was basically a soup made of potatoes, peas and barley (giving rise to the term "soup kitchen").  Funding was always an issue, and Thompson learned as much as was known about nutrition in order to provide healthful, but budget-conscious meals. 
Monument to Count Rmford in the English Garden, Munich

He became famous throughout Europe for his work, and the governments of England, Germany, France, Scotland, and Switzerland consulted with him to set up similar programs.
While in Bavaria, he also came up with work programs for idle soldiers, set up the English Garden in Munich, started a veterinary school, and convinced farmers to start growing nutritious foods, such as turnips and potatoes, which, up to that time, were suspected as poisonous.

In his quest for ever more efficient ways to prepare food, he invented such things as: the double boiler, the kitchen range, the fireless cooker, the percolator, and the pressure cooker. In recognition of his achievements, he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He took on the title Count Rumford, in honor of the town in New Hampshire where his fortunes changed. 

Where would we be without the percolator?
After five years in Munich, his patron died, and, having no other friends, probably on account of his abrasive personality, he returned to London. There, he ran another feeding program, serving 60,000 meals per day. He also continued inventing things that made people's lives better. The most famous of these is the Rumford Fireplace, which made him extremely wealthy in his own right. 

The peripatetic count moved one more time – to Paris, where he lived out his life still conducting research into the nature of heat and light. In physics circles, he is remembered as the Father of Thermodynamics. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, died in Paris in 1814. He left the bulk of his estate to Harvard College.

This article, although way too long by blogging standards, barely scratches the surface of the story of Count Rumford. Saint or sinner? You decide.


DLWarner said...

I find him refreshing. He stood for and acted upon what he believed in. He seemed to be willing to help all of these people for its own sake. I'd rather know someone like that than a smiling politician whom is personable but never really does anything for anyone but his or herself.

JodieMo said...

Saint or sinner? I don't know, but he sounds incredibly human to me. He also exhibits many traits of a genius; brilliant and forward thinking while also stubborn and set in his ways. No matter what his attitude toward people of his day, he has certainly changed the world all together and made it a better place for it.

By the way, it was great to meet you this past weekend at the Food Blog Forum!

Pablo Escolar said...

I just wrote about Count Rumford recently as well. Another (accidental) accomplishment is his contribution to low temp/sous vide cooking.