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Who Was Count Rumford?
Last Updated: 03/06/2017
I mentioned Rumford fireplaces to my friend the other day. Her response was, "I'd read something about them once. They're supposed to be more efficient, right?"
"Well, yes," I replied. "But there's more to the story."
So let's begin with the inventor.

Count Rumford

Benjamin Thompson was born on March 26, 1753, in a Woburn (MA) farmhouse. Yet he left America in 1776 and emerged into high military, political, and scientific circles in England, Bavaria, and France, until his death on August 21, 1814, in Auteuil, (FR).

Did he rise to fame in response to country upheavals or in pursuit of personal gains? Maybe a little of both. He zigzagged between army positions and natural science experiments, on the grounds of public good rather than national allegiance. As knight (1984), count (1792) of the Holy Roman Empire (shortened to Count Rumford), natural philosopher (precursor of physicist), and philanthropist, he had clout. Thus, he drew an audience, developed a following, and chronicled his findings. And his investigations spoke for themselves.

Count Rumford
The Rumford Fireplace

The Count tackled the problem of London's smoky chimneys with a methodical approach toward fireplace modification. I'm referring to the Rumford design that has experienced resurgence in the last quarter century.

Compared to traditional practice, his construction was:

  • Vertically taller (firebox height increased)
  • More angled (firebox side walls, widened by no more than 135 degrees)
  • More shallow (firebox depth reduced)
  • More streamlined (rounded narrow throat, created for smooth regular motion called laminar flow).

And, why did he do this?

For a "neat and elegant" appearance, and "to save fuel, to render dwelling-houses more comfortable and salubrious, and effectually to prevent chimneys from smoking" (Essay IV Of Chimney Fire-places.

Those were his actual words. Even though the Count's writing style differs from ours, it's interesting to understand Rumford fireplaces from his point of view and hear his old expressions. For example, in his works he spoke of domestic economy instead of household efficiency or the useful arts instead of everyday living skills.

Learning More

Others who have written about Count Rumford are: Jared Renwick (1845), George Ellis (1871), Curtis Gillespie (1906), Vrest Orton (1969), and Jim Buckley (since the 1990s), to name a few. Ellis was asked by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) to write a memoir as part of a Rumford collection put together in the 1870s (Essay IV above is in Volume II). How uncanny; in 1796 the inventor himself had donated funds toward their AAAS award for heat or light (later called the Rumford Prize).

To explore more about Rumford fireplaces and their inventor, start with this full article about Count Rumford and then search for the above resources at

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