Count Rumford, King Of The Fireplace
Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford, 1783. Harvard Art Museums/ Fogg Museum, Bequest of Edmund C. Converse. Photograph courtesy President and Fellows of Harvard College Imaging Department
Warm the cockles of your heart with this tale of the man who turned the humble hearth into a status symbol.
While having a drink at a friend’s loft in Tribeca recently, I noticed that his fireplace looked different from any fireplace I had ever seen. It was very tall and shallow, yet there was no smoke wafting into the room. The flames were neatly devouring the logs. It made the short, wide contraption in my apartment look like a peasant.
“Nice fireplace,” I remarked. My friend, Mr Matthew Baird, is a modernist architect, but he is also someone who appreciates fine, old things like the Château Lynch-Bages we were drinking.
“Do you know Count Rumford?” he asked as if some fellow in a frock coat might be joining us later. “He wrote the definitive principles of fireplace design in the 18th century. This fireplace is based on his design.”
My initial reaction was that Count Rumford was the kind of man I could get behind – a fellow of means who devoted himself to no less a hedonistic pursuit than fireplace improvement. But as I did some research, I discovered that he was actually a self-made man, whose inventiveness during his lifetime often found him likened to Mr Benjamin Franklin. Yet somehow he is largely forgotten today.
A prolific inventor, Count Rumford created a double boiler, a coffee pot, and a kitchen range
Count Rumford’s ascension from American farm boy to British knight and Bavarian count is testament to where a scientific mind could take a man even in the class-bound world of the 18th century. Born Mr Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753, he was apprenticed to a physician. And at 19, the first of several life-altering breaks came his way. He married an older widow, whose father had been one of the first settlers of Rumford, New Hampshire (modern-day Concord). Once married to a woman with property, young Mr Thompson was soon socialising with the leaders of Colonial America – in particular those loyal to the British crown.
His allegiance to HM King George III and General Thomas Gage, who was commanding the British troops in Boston, did not win him any friends with American patriots there. And when the Sons of Liberty threatened to have Mr Thompson tarred and feathered, the 23-year-old left his wife behind (evidently, he wasn’t prepared to become a giant chicken for her sake) and fled to England. Once there he was appointed the private secretary to Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies. In his spare time, he engaged in a series of physics experiments.
Following the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Mr Thompson, now a lieutenant colonel in a British regiment was knighted. He enjoyed another stroke of good fortune when he was introduced to the Elector of Bavaria, Charles Theodore. Back then the Elector was the monarch of a territory stretching from Bayreuth in the north down through Munich to Innsbruck in the south. Mr Thompson – now Sir Benjamin Thompson – went to work for Charles Theodore and rose through the ranks – general of the Bavarian army, minister of war and eventually the right hand of the monarch. It is here in Bavaria that his dual interest in both science and statecraft flourished. He reorganised the army and studied gunnery and explosives – particularly the physics of heat. A prolific inventor, and, it appears, keen homemaker, he created a double boiler, a coffee pot, and a kitchen range. An 18th-century Tom Dixon, if you will.
A fireplace based on Count Rumford’s design, in Mr Matthew Baird’s Tribeca home. Photograph by Peter Arnold
“He studied the tensile strength of silk and the warming qualities of wool cloth,” notes Mr Vrest Orton in The Forgotten Art Of Building A Good Fireplace (a 1969 study that attempted to restore Sir Benjamin to his rightful place in thermodynamic history). Mr Orton, who grew up in a Vermont house with Rumford fireplaces, also describes how Sir Benjamin attempted his own version of The War on Poverty: rounding up 2,600 of Munich’s homeless and then attempting to teach them good habits by feeding them but only when they worked making clothing for the army.
In 1796, 250 fireplaces were rebuilt in London in two months, and having a Rumford fireplace became a status symbol
For his numerous contributions to Bavaria, Sir Benjamin was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791. He took the name “Rumford” for Rumford, New Hampshire.
In 1795, the newly minted count returned to London and soon published an essay on the improvement of chimney fireplaces. Prior to this work, chimneys were wide enough to fit a chimney sweep (we don’t know Mr Dick Van Dyke’s measurements, so please do the math, Mary Poppins fans). Count Rumford argued that a tall, shallow fireplace with a narrow chimney would make for a more powerful downdraught of cold air and a more powerful updraught of warm air to rise from the burning wood. This increase in circulation compared to the traditional set-up would also suck any errant smoke from the firebox up the chimney. Another innovative feature was angled sidewalls to radiate more heat into the room.
After the book of essays’ publication in 1796, 250 fireplaces were rebuilt in London in two months, and having a Rumford fireplace became a status symbol. Even back in America, Mr Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, had the fireplaces at Monticello (his home) built in the Rumford style. Now a man of title and some wealth, Count Rumford went on to help found and underwrite the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a chair in physics at Harvard University. After his great fireplace success, he split his time between London and Paris (a sort of automatic side effect of being wonderful, even today), where he died in 1814.
Several theories have arisen as to why his name and his style of fireplace have faded into obscurity. Biographer Mr Vrest Orton thinks it is one of two things: he never published an autobiography and he sided with the loyalist cause during the American Revolutionary War. “Liberal revisionists have written Count Rumford out of British and American history,” says Mr Orton, tipping his own political cards.
Personally, I can’t explain his lack of fame. I can merely attest to the quality of his handiwork when relaxing on a couch during the holidays. Or as my friend, Matthew, puts it, “I find the Rumford fireplace to be far superior to the standard deep boxes favoured by American builders… and the sloped fireback allows the flames to dance much higher and create a more dramatic fire.” And with that insight he poured me another glass of very dramatic red wine.