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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Count Rumford, Sanborn Brown, and the Rumford Mosaic


SCIENTIST, inventor, innovator, spy, soldier of fortune--admired, despised, honored, vilified--Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, a New Englander by birth: Who was this man? If you were to saunter along the walkway from the vicinity of Observatory Hill on the Dartmouth College campus toward the rear entrance at the second level of Fairchild Tower or hasten to class along the corridor on the main level of Wilder Laboratory, you would see, straight ahead, a colorful mosaic portraying this unusual character and his unique contributions to science and society. This artistic creation was commissioned by Sanborn Conner Brown 1935, and executed by David P. Holleman of Lexington, Massachusetts. It now hangs in the tower of the Sherman Fairchild Physical Sciences Center, along with paintings, sculptures, and photomurals, among instruments and apparatus from the Dartmouth College Collection of Historical Scientific Apparatus.

Benjamin Thompson was born a farmer's son on 26 March 1753 in North Woburn, Massachusetts; his father died before the boy was two years old. During his boyhood years, Thompson had limited schooling. Largely self-taught, as he grew older he sought information from friends and acquaintances. His inquisitive mind led him to pose scientific questions at an early age. But at thirteen, he apprenticed as a clerk to an importer and later worked for a dry-goods merchant. Then he became an apprentice to Doctor John Hay of Woburn, to learn the science and art of medicine.

None of these occupations were appealing to Thompson. So, early in 1772, he left Woburn to teach school in Bradford, Massachusetts. There he also began a serious study of science under the Reverend Samuel Williams, who later would become Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard College. Not satisfied with his teaching post in Bradford that summer, Thompson migrated once again, this time to Concord (originally Rumford), New Hampshire. He had been invited by the Reverend Timothy Walker, formerly of Woburn, to help set up and teach in a school there. As was customary for teachers in colonial days, he lived in his sponsor's home.

Within a few months, young Thompson had wooed and wed his sponsor's daughter, a widow fourteen years his senior and the richest landowner in Concord, thereby becoming the proprietor of two thirds of the land in town. He gave up teaching as a career to assume the role of a gentleman. Within a few years, however, his fortunes changed dramatically. His aristocratic pretensions fueled a well-founded suspicion that he supported the British cause. On being warned of his impending capture by local patriots, he abruptly galloped away in the middle of the night on his brother-in-law's best horse to escape being tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail. Soon afterwards he joined the Loyalists in Boston to serve as a spy and informant for the British army.

Cannon-boring experiments.

By 1775 Thompson had sailed for England, where under the auspices of the Secretary for the Colonies Lord George Germain he rose very rapidly in the service of the British government. During this period Thompson found time to carry out a scientific investigation of the force of fired gunpowder and to develop a new system of marine signaling for the British navy. In 1781 he published a paper--his first of a scientific nature--on the force of gunpowder, before the Royal Society of London, of which he subsequently become a fellow. Not long afterwards, Thompson was made lieutenant colonel of the King's American Dragoons and sailed immediately to America to raise a Loyalist regiment of horsemen for service under him. However, the Revolutionary War had all but concluded before they saw much action, and Thompson returned to London.

Grant of coat-of-arms to Count Rumford, 1784.

For his service to the crown, Thompson was made a colonel and received a lifetime pension on half pay. He then departed for the Continent as a soldier of fortune. Early in his European travels, he met an elderly lady in Vienna, who, he wrote, 'opened my eyes to other kinds of glory than that of victory in battle.'[1] Thereafter, he would devote his talents to the well-being of mankind. He accepted an earlier invitation to serve the elector of Bavaria.

Thompson's many innovations for helping the homeless and poor in Bavaria placed him among the pioneers in social reform. He established free schools for poor children, industrial schools, a college for veterinary surgeons, home industries, and off-duty work at extra pay for hitherto idle soldiers. He encouraged the planting of gardens, crop rotation, and the growing of food plants such as turnips and potatoes, until then considered poisonous by many Europeans. He designed and had built in Munich a beautiful 600-acre public English-style garden. In 1792, for all these contributions, the elector of Bavaria made Benjamin Thompson a count of the Holy Roman Empire. For his title, Thompson chose Rumford, the earlier name of Concord, where his fortunes had changed so dramatically. In addition to his social reforms, he found time to carry out many of the most important scientific studies and experiments for which he is justly famous, and he made numerous practical inventions such as kitchen stoves, roasting ovens, fireless cookers, and pots and pans of various designs, for example the dripolater coffeepot.

In 1798 Count Rumford left Bavaria for London. There he devised his new-style fireplace and supervised its installation in many English homes. He recommended and helped establish the first research center in the world--the Royal Institution--but because of disagreements with associates at the institution, not long afterward he resigned and left London for Paris, never to return. There he soon married his old friend Lavoisier's widow; however, their lives together were anything but happy, and by 1809 they were formally separated. Rumford retired to the Parisian suburb of Auteuil, where he turned his whole attention to scientific subjects and wrote papers on a wide range of topics. There he died on 21 August 1814, at the age of sixty-one.

One hundred eighty years later, Dartmouth College has mounted on a prominent wall of Fairchild Tower the colorful Rumford Mosaic, a gift of Sanborn Brown's widow, Lois Brown, as a memorial to both her husband and Benjamin Thompson. The story of its origin is fascinating.

Sanborn Brown is a descendant of Francis Brown 1805, a College trustee and president of the College from 1815 to 1820. Sanborn Brown was born on 19 January 1913, in Beirut, Lebanon. His father, Professor Julius Arthur Brown 1902, taught physics and astronomy in the American University of Beirut. As a boy, Sanborn became deeply interested in the history of the region. Around the age of ten, while serving as a mascot to a British archeological expedition investigating the Antilyas Caves north of Beirut, he unearthed the skull of a Neolithic girl, which now is housed in the British Museum. At age fourteen, he and his older brother Francis discovered a critical boundary inscription for Roman Emperor Hadrian's forest in the mountains of Lebanon. Meanwhile, he 'spent summers discovering and exploring Baal altars and Roman and Crusader castles, and with the help of his father and brothers, made a plane-table survey of Roman watchtowers on the caravan routes to Damascus.'[2] Sanborn had become a budding archeologist.

His attraction toward the physical sciences, however, also began at an early age. He joined the American Association of Variable Star Observers and by age fourteen had had his intensity measurements of two variable stars published by the the Harvard Observatory. Without ever having seen a radio, he constructed two working models, first a crystal set and then a one-tube receiver, which attracted much attention at the university. Also, he built a homemade voltmeter on the frame of an old alarm clock, ground a four-inch telescope mirror, and helped design and build a centrifugal water pump for irrigation in Lebanon. At age sixteen he left home for the United States to attend Tabor Academy and Dartmouth College.

Sanborn Brown was graduated from Dartmouth College as a physics major in 1935 and remained to earn his M.A. in 1937 before going on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his Ph.D. in 1944. He stayed on at MIT as a teacher and researcher to become eventually a full professor of physics and associate dean of the graduate school. His most extensive scientific studies and research were in plasma physics, on which he published numerous technical papers and several books. He also had a deep interest in the history of science and in physics education; he wrote articles and books, and served on boards of national and international organizations, in these areas. In addition, special note should be made of his active participation in the spiritual outreach of his church by sharing with fellow parishioners his knowledge and experiences in the Near East, and his understanding of biblical history.

At MIT during the Second World War, Sanborn Brown worked as a 'free physicist' for the National Defense Research Committee of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 'unraveling puzzlers that had baffled other agencies, such as ways of de-arming booby traps and the causes of mysterious accidents to dive-bomber pilots.' Also, we are told, he 'attacked some of the toughest technical problems faced by Censorship.'[3] While studying the methods of espionage and counterespionage, he learned of Rumford's scientific techniques in the use of secret inks and codes. Whereas in his college days he had found Rumford interesting as a scientist, he now found him fascinating as a cloak-and-dagger man, and the more he read about him, the more intrigued he became.

As a result of this enthusiasm, during the next several decades Professor Brown gathered a large body of scholarly material on Rumford, which is now housed in the Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections. He published many technical papers and several books on Rumford's life and work,[4] and assembled an unequaled collection of models of Rumford's apparatus and inventions, many now in the halls of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Finally, to portray this complex man in a concrete and unique way, in 1968 he commissioned the artist and fellow townsman David Holleman of Lexington, Massachusetts, to create the Rumford Mosaic.

This colorful ceramic mosaic was completed in 1970. Until 1992, it hung in Professor Brown's home, first in Lexington and later in Henniker, New Hampshire. His widow, Lois Brown, then gave it to Dartmouth College. She notes 'that the achievements and adventures of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, were one of Sandy's lifelong enthusiams, and that he published a biography of this interesting gent.'[5] Holleman's rendition of Professor Brown's 1962 study may be seen in the mosaic under Thompson's left hand.

The portrait of Thompson was adapted from an 1800 painting by Rembrandt Peale. Holleman's interpretation, suggesting a European aristocrat with ambitions toward nobility, is historically correct. The diagrams and images surrounding the portrait are illustrative of Thompson's accomplishments as scientist and social reformer. They are copied from Rumford's own drawings or derived from his writings and embellished by Holleman with whimsical additions of people, profiles, and symbols. Thompson is portrayed here holding, in his right hand, a Rumford portable lamp of 1811 resting on diagrams of two of his cooking utensils, and in his left hand, the biography. Seven of the pictures surrounding the portrait represent a few of Thompson's more important contributions and inventions. Clockwise, starting from the lower left, they are: [6]

1. Caricature of Rumford's face, with his apparatus for demonstrating that caloric is not involved in the production of heat by sunlight.

2. Rumford's cannon-boring experiment for demonstrating that heat comes not from the transfer of caloric but from friction of a dull boring tool rotating against the inside of an unfinished barrel. Here Holleman has a burly operator standing next to the barrel, which is hot, as suggested by the sun symbol.

3. Rumford's innovative contributions for the care of the poor made him a pioneer in social welfare. Here the symbol of a tree illuminated by the sun represents his introduction of farming by prison inmates to grow their food.

4. Chicken and fish roasting in a hot Rumford oven.

5. Copied from Rumford's diagram of the apparatus with which he discovered convection in liquids.

6. 'The Comforts of a Rumford Stove,' after a caricature by James Gillray, of Thompson with his back to a fireplace ('stove') of his own design.

7. From 'Perspective View of the Kitchen of Baron de Lerchenfeld at Munich.' Here his fireplace and mounted utensils together constitute Rumford's first kitchen range.

One interpretation of the symbolic fish in the lower right corner is that it represents Thompson's associations, right to left, with the United States, Great Britain, and Bavaria.

[1] Quoted in Egon Lehrburger [Egon Larsen, pseud.], An American in Europe: The Life of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1953), 48.

[2] From the introduction to Sanborn C. Brown, Count Rumford, Physicist Extraordinary (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), iv.

[3] David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), 518.

[4] See, for example, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1979); An Exhibition of the Scientific Works of Count Rumford (Boston: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1953); and a typescript for a proposed book, 'Comforts of a Rumford: Living Happily With Open Fireplaces' (1981?). He also edited the Collected Works of Count Rumford, 5 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968-1970).

[5] Quoted in Dartmouth College, Class of 1935, The Tear Bag (September 1993), 4.

[6] Readers interested in the meaning or significance of the symbols are invited to explore the Library's resources on Count Rumford. In addition to the Collected Works cited above, there are numerous other editions of complete, selected, or individual works. The Rumford Collection in the Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections includes published works, manuscripts, correspondence, and drawings.

Last Updated: 5/3/12