PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.23, NO.1 (Winter 2002)

The Contribution of Count Rumford to Domestic Life in Jane Austen’s Time

Hugh Rowlinson


Hugh Rowlinson (email: was born in Handforth, England, and obtained his B.A., M.A., and D. Phil. in chemistry at Oxford University.  He did post-graduate work at Evanston, IL and with the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada.  He remained in Canada, employed as an industrial chemist and, later, as VP of the Plastics Division, and VP of Research and Development at C.I.L.  He retired in 1988.


consider Catherine Morland, aged seventeen and not quite yet a heroine, being driven by Henry Tilney in his curricle on the last miles of their journey from Bath to Northanger Abbey.  Henry, with his sharp mind, has already realized that she is expecting an ancient abbey of the kind so graphically described in the Gothic novels that she loves.  Indeed, he has teased her gently about the gloomy room she will occupy, the funereal tapestries on the walls, the stormy night she will venture into the secret passage where she will find the memoirs of the wretched Matilda, before her lamp suddenly expires into darkness!  She professes not to believe him; “Miss Tilney, she was sure, would never put her into such a chamber” (161).


Nevertheless, she still expects a glimpse of massy walls of gray stone with the last beams of the sun playing on high Gothic windows.  But alas, a sudden scud of rain driving in her face fixes all her thought on the welfare of her new straw bonnet, and she arrives in the hall of Northanger Abbey without seeing the outside of the house. “An abbey!—yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey!—but she doubted, as she looked around the room, whether anything within her observation, would have given her the consciousness.  The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste..  The fire-place, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford . . . ” (161-62).  Who or what was a “Rumford”?  He was a Count, no less, of the Holy Roman Empire, although born plain Benjamin Thompson, in Woburn, Massachusetts, and a well-known scientist and inventor.  “What” was a much improved fireplace that he introduced into Britain in 1796.  The subject of this paper will be Rumford himself, some of his scientific work and particularly his domestic inventions and their effect on Jane Austen’s world.


Let us start by looking at his life in tabular form, with attached notes.


The Life of Count Rumford

1753                March 26th.  Born Benjamin Thompson, in Woburn, MA.  (Note A)

1766 – 69        Shop-clerk in Salem and near Faneuil Hall, Boston.

1770                Apprenticed to Dr. Hay in Woburn. Kept daily diary.

                        (Submitted first paper to Am. Phil. Soc. Rejected.)

                        Attended Natural Philosophy lectures at Harvard.  Fired by Dr. H. (B)

1772                Hired as teacher in Concord, NH.  In four months married wealthy widow (Sarah Walker), settled down to manage her estates.  Favored by J. Wentworth, Royal Governor.

1773                Given Major’s commission in NH militia, probably as informer.

1774                Called before “Committee of Safety” in Concord.  Acquitted but fled to Woburn, temporarily leaving wife and baby. (C)

1775                Living as British spy, letter in invisible ink extant.  In Oct., left Woburn for Boston, leaving Sarah forever. (D)

                        Dec. JANE AUSTEN BORN.

1776                Boston abandoned.  Accompanied dispatches to London as expert on US military affairs.  Made Secy. to Lord George Germain.

1779-81           Starts physics experiments.  Made Under Secy. of State, responsible for equipping British Army.  Publishes first scientific paper, on gunpowder, in Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Made FRS.  But leaves hurriedly for New York to recruit a cavalry regiment.  Succeeds, but does very little actual fighting. (E)

1783                Peace.  Back in London, King George reluctantly makes him Colonel.

1784                Looks for job in Europe; offered military position by Elector of Bavaria.  Needs UK rank, so King George knights him!  Again, potential espionage involved.

1785-88           Scientifically studies problems of Bavarian Army, e.g., thermal conductivity of cloth.

1790                Solves “beggar” problem in Munich. (F)

1792                Made Minister of War, of Police, etc. and Count of the Holy Roman Empire.  Selects “Rumford” as his title, after the old name for Concord.  His wife dies, unseen by Rumford since 1775.

1795                Returns to UK to publicize his scientific work.  Lionized by society.

1796                Publishes “Of Chimney Fireplaces.”  250 fireplaces rebuilt in London in two months.  “Rumford” prizes given to Royal Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences ($5000 each).

1798                Publishes “Source of Heat excited by Friction” in Phil. Trans.  Roy. Soc. (H)

1799                Founds Royal Institution, to educated mechanics in the “Application of Science to the Common Purposes of Life.”

1801                Humphrey Davy appointed lecturer at Royal Institution.  Rumford’s dictatorial habits give problems.  New Elector invites him back to Munich to set up a similar Institution.  Agrees, but stays only two weeks, then seven in Paris.  Feted by Academy.  Meets Mme. Lavoisier. (I)

1802                Leaves London forever.  Spends a few weeks in Paris, then travels to Bavaria.  Tries to return to Paris, but Napoleon refuses.

1804                Mme. Lavoisier persuades Napoleon to relent.  Count Rumford and Mme. L agree to marry.

1805                Married to Mme. L.  Fine house in Paris.  Starts work on better lamps.

1807                Separated, later divorced.  Rumford buys separate house, works on many practical and philosophical inventions, including the drip coffee maker.  Daughter Sally keeps house for him.

1814                Dies suddenly on 14th.  Buried in Auteuil.  Leaves estate to Harvard.


Notes on the Life of Count Rumford

A)  His father, a farmer, died soon after.  His mother remarried, raised a large family, and was supported in old age by Rumford.


B)  His diary shows not only an intense interest in science (physics, chemistry, and anatomy) but also an organized and very hard working young man.


C)  The Committee of Safety was a pre-revolutionary local body looking for British spies.  They had actually caught one, but had no hard evidence.


D)  The letter gives details of the revolutionary army, and is written in pyrogallic acid (from nut galls), needing ferrous sulfate to develop the image, i.e., it must have been pre-arranged.


E)  His rapid advance in British Government and scientific circles is quite extraordinary.  He must have been an able and convincing young man!  But he left London on a very chancy effort to raise a regiment of recruits in America, at his own expense (only when successful would the Crown take over, and appoint him Colonel, thereafter paid for life.)  There is suspicion, no evidence, that he was involved in a French spy scandal.


F)  He had all the beggars arrested one night, and essentially imprisoned in factories to make army uniforms!  But he saw that they were fed and paid, and some years later he was feted by the now happy industrial workers.  He always approached problems as a scientist, looking first at the science, and then deciding how to apply it to the public good.  Unhappily, his science in nutrition was wildly wrong, but the army and workers seemed to have thrived anyhow.


G)  Sally was now 22; had been brought up quite humbly in America, and did not fit at all in Rumford’s aristocratic circle.  He treated her badly (didn’t he treat everyone badly?) although she was later happier in Munich.


H)  Rumford’s most famous scientific contribution (see later).


I)  Widow of France’s most eminent chemist.  The revolutionaries cut off Lavoisier’s head but saved his laboratory, which can still be seen in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.  She and Rumford spent much of 1803-04 together.  Only when married did they start to fight!


Let us now turn to the famous fireplace, for it was sufficiently famous for Jane to know that her readers would instantly recognize it, and that it branded Northanger Abbey as a modern house rather than the Gothic Mansion of Catherine Morland’s imagination.  Like the Count, let us look first at the problem to be solved.  He phrased it thus: “The enormous waste of fuel in London may be estimated by the vast, dark cloud which continually hangs over this great metropolis and frequently overshadows the whole country, far and wide.  For this dense cloud is certainly composed almost entirely of unconsumed coal, —.  I never view from a distance as I come into town this black cloud which hangs over London without wishing to be able to compute the enormous number of cauldrons of coal of which it is composed.  For, could this be ascertained, I am persuaded, so striking a fact would awaken the curiosity and excite the astonishment of all ranks of the inhabitants and perhaps turn their minds to an object of economy to which they have hitherto paid little attention” (Vol. 2, 281).  This is perhaps Rumford at his worst, arrogant, and unbelievably prolix.  But he always wanted to do good for people, often despite themselves, and in this he reminds us of Jane’s portrait of Lady Catherine de Bourgh!  Also, he was a great scientist and approached the problem properly.  “In order to take measures with certainty for warming a room by means of an open chimney fire, it will be necessary to consider how, or in what manner, such a fire communicates heat to the room” (Vol. 2, 235).  In addition, he gives very detailed practical instruction for the design of fireplaces and for the conversion of existing ones to his new pattern.


Rumford fireplace And what was this new pattern for a fireplace, that Jane knew was so easily recognizable?  Essentially, Rumford knew that only radiant heat is effective in heating a room with an open fire, so he concluded that instead of large fireplaces designed to hold half a tree, what was needed as a small fireplace with a small intense fire.  See the cartoon of Rumford by James Gillray (1757 - 1815) where the tiny fireplace is instantly noticeable.  Furthermore, the fireplace should not be too deep, and its sides, instead of being at right angles to the back, should be arranged (at 135 degrees) to radiate as much heat as possible.  These points are illustrated in Figs 1-4 comparing an old-style fireplace with a “Rumford,” and taken from his paper (Vol. 2, 285).  The differences would have immediately been visible to Catherine on entering the great hall of Northanger.


However, these changes deal only with the inefficiency of the open fire, not with its smoke.  It was obvious that if a fire smoked, the chimney was not big enough to take the smoke away, so you make it bigger.  Right?  Quite wrong, said Rumford.  He insisted that the throat of the chimney should be no more than four inches across, as shown in Fig. 6, which is really very small for a fireplace in a big house.  He also insisted on a smooth curve being made behind the mantle to assist rapid flow through the throat.  To change an old fireplace into a Rumford, the workmen built up, typically with bricks, the area shown in Fig. 6.  A footnote to his 1796 paper reads in part: “I have been of late much engaged in these investigations, and am now actually employed daily in making a variety of experiments with grates and fireplaces, upon different constructions, in the room I inhabit in the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall” (Vol. 2, 265).  His inquisitive mind was always at work.  He noted: “To all those who take pleasure in doing good to mankind by promoting useful knowledge, and facilitating the means of procuring the comforts and conveniences of life, these investigations cannot but be very interesting”  (Vol. 2, 322).  It is to his credit that his invention was durable, too; the Rumford fireplace is still manufactured for sale, at least in the USA, where, for example, Jefferson used them at Monticello.  Details and photos can be found at


old style-exterior
old style-interior


For our purposes it is sufficient to note that the technology was clearly required, for Rumford was soon invited to send bricklayers all over Britain to alter fireplaces.  In his paper Rumford gives a long list of (mostly titled) people who have had their chimneys changed, including: “Lord Palmerston’s seat in Broadlands, near Southampton, and at several gentlemen’s houses in that neighborhood” (Vol. 2, 225).  In addition to fixing fireplaces, Rumford provided society with a little scandal: it was widely reported that Rumford had an affair with Lady Palmerston, although from their correspondence (now at Dartmouth College) it seems unlikely.



old-style- side

Cross-section of a chimney and fireplace, showing the bricks used to
make the fireplace shallower, and the throat of the chimney very small.
Rumford, Vol.2, 289


However, it is certainly true that Jane Austen loved a good fire.  There are many references to such in her correspondence, e.g., from Godmersham, 30 June 1808: “I am moved down to the library for the sake of a fire which agreeably surprised us – and here in warm and happy solitude proceed to acknowledge this day’s letter.”  There are fewer references to smoke and chimneys, although, of course, Admiral Croft complained that the breakfast room chimney at Kellynch smoked a little, but only in a hard north wind.  Nevertheless, it seems likely, given all Rumford’s publicity, that Jane had at least heard of a Rumford fireplace in time to include it as “modern” in “Susan,” later Northanger Abbey, before the manuscript was sent (unsuccessfully) to the publisher in 1803.  It is more probable that she had actually seen one before she revised “Susan,” for she writes to Cassandra from Chawton, 20 May 1811: “The chimneys at the Great House are done.”   I am indebted to Mr. Adrian Thatcher, Restoration Project Manager, for the opinion that she was actually referring to the rebuilding of the chimneys at Chawton House.  Certainly, a number of the fireplaces at Chawton House have the shallow, reflecting shape of a “Rumford.”


We now turn to the series of experiments that made Rumford an important scientist.  In 1797 he seems to have been in charge of practically everything in Bavaria, including the Artillery, and hence the foundry where cannon were made.  At that time, brass cannon were cast solid, and then the hole down the middle (the bore) was bored with a sharpened iron tool.  In fact, the tool was held still, and the cannon rotated by a mechanism operated by two horses.  Rumford found that the cannon still got hot even if the tool was totally blunt, and no useful boring was done, so he encased part of the cannon in a watertight wooden box and filled it with water to measure the heat produced.  After a time, the water boiled.  Rumford fascinated his aristocratic friends by showing this:  “It would be difficult to describe the surprise and astonishment expressed by the countenances of the bystanders, on seeing so large a quantity of cold water heated, and actually made to boil, without any fire” (Vol. 1, 15).


One of the important observations Rumford made in these experiments was that heat appeared to be inexhaustible.  As long as the horses went round, the water boiled.  Thus, there was no way that heat could be a substance, called “Caloric,” as was then believed.  At some point, a “substance” in the metal must run out.  He concluded that heat was some form of MOTION.   Here, of course, he was quite right, since heat is now thought to be the motion of atoms and molecules, although these had not been described when Rumford wrote.  What he just missed, and he was very close to making this discovery, was the equivalence of work and heat, which we now call the First Law of Thermodynamics.  That is, you put in so much work (the horses walking round) and you get so much heat (the water boils).  This equivalence never varies.  This Law was formulated some forty years later, by J. P. Joule, and to his credit, he acknowledged that Rumford’s experiments had proved it, and that the so-called mechanical equivalent of heat that Rumford had calculated was reasonably accurate, given his quite crude experiments.


In Jane Austen’s time, science,1 or natural philosophy as it was known (hence D. Phil. or Ph.D.) was just coming out of a period when it was an intellectual curiosity for the upper classes, and people were beginning to realise that major improvements in life, and indeed money, could be made from its application.  Count Rumford was right up with his times on this.  To his credit, he deliberately did NOT patent any of his inventions; rather, he publicized them for the common good.  Indeed, Rumford’s character was in some ways the antithesis of Jane Austen’s.  He was a (self-made) aristocrat, extremely autocratic and quite unable to get along with people as individuals, typically his daughter or his colleagues at the Royal Institution.  At the same time, he was also very public spirited, with a real interest in helping the poor.  His energetic attack on poverty in Munich has been mentioned, and he wrote several papers describing how the poor could be housed, and particularly how they could be made comfortable, and how they could be fed.  “If it were generally known how little trouble and how little expense are required to do much good, the heart-felt satisfaction which arises from relieving the wants and promoting the happiness of our fellow creatures is so great that I am persuaded acts of the most essential charity would be much more present, and the mass of misery among mankind would consequently be much lessened” (Vol. 5, 30).  Jane Austen, on the other hand, was less interested in doing good for the masses than in getting to know individuals.  Even Lady Catherine, whose character rather resembles Rumford’s, did good only for those around her.  Not until her last work did Jane Austen reflect the changing mores of the times: Mr. Parker approves of sea-bathing for the masses, provided they did it at Sanditon and rented his houses!


Turning now to Count Rumford’s scientific output, Professor Sanborn C. Brown, in his 1970 edition of Rumford’s papers, reproduces sixty papers, of which I estimate thirty-one as being on pure science (eighteen are on heat and the rest mainly on light and the properties of water.)  Five are on topics of public interest such as housing the poor and reorganizing the army, and twenty-four are on applied science, as we now call it, including six on chimneys and efficient combustion, nine on steam heating (including one on “The Salubrity of Warm Bathing”), and the remainder include papers on improved lamps and coffee makers, to which we will return, on guns and gunpowder, the design of wheels, and even a design for a frigate.  The last was never built, a pity since British designs were known to be inferior to French, and notably so to American (e.g., U.S.S. Constitution, etc.).


Thus, we see in Jane Austen’s time considerable advances in science as well as great efforts to bring science to public use, It is true that these advances, which during her lifetime were mainly in the industrial arena, did not seem to impinge upon the country life she loved.  But then it has been widely commented that neither did the terrible wars of the time, nor the political aftermath of the French and American revolutions.  Certainly, only in her reference to Rumford do we see her, or her characters, affected by changing technology, although in Sanditon’s Mr. Parker we perhaps see her describing the entrepreneurial class that was rapidly infringing on the position of the landed gentry, largely due to the rising Industrial Revolution.  It is interesting that Jane Austen had Mr. Parker deal in property and renting, which she would know about, rather than steam engines or manufacturing, which she would not.  In a letter to the Prince Regent’s chaplain, on 16 September 1813, Jane Austen commented on the “subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing.”  There are, however, two other inventions of the good Count that I’m sure would have pleased her.  These are the lamps and coffee pots from his research in Paris.


In Rumford’s youth, and in Jane Austen’s, domestic illumination was by candles (although, of course, oil lamps of a crude sort have been known since pre-Roman times).  The gentry used beeswax candles; everyone else used tallow.  While he was residing in Munich, Rumford designed a standard candle and a photometer to measure it.  However, the need to provide better light for his workers (the ex-beggars of Munich) speedily led him to conclude that oil lamps were a better, i.e., cheaper and less polluting, form of illumination, and in 1784 a Frenchman named Argand had devised a much improved oil lamp wherein the wick was cylindrical and air was supplied up the center.  Rumford strongly supported this lamp, and devoted much time to improvements (once when moving house he discarded over a hundred experimental lamps!).  Jane Austen may have preferred the more domestic candle.  In a letter from London, 16 September 1813 she writes, “It is to be a quiet evening - my eyes are tired of dust and lamps.”


coffee pot Coffee was obviously a matter of some importance to the Austen household.  There is some implication perhaps that coffee was a luxury for the wealthy relative. On arriving in Bath for a visit in May 1799, for example, Jane writes to Cassandra: “Edward seemed rather fagged last night - but I trust that the bustle of sending for tea, coffee, sugar, etc. - will do him good.”  She mentions coffee once again, on 11 June 1799: “The coffee mill will be wanted every day while Edward is at Steventon, as he always drinks coffee for breakfast.”  Jane and Cassandra probably made it by boiling ground coffee in water.  But Rumford knew better: “Among the numerous luxuries of the table unknown to our forefathers, which have been imported into Europe in modern times, coffee may be considered as one of the most valuable.  Its taste is most agreeable, and its flavour uncommonly so; but its principal excellence depends upon its salubrity and on its exhilarating quality.  It excites cheerfulness without intoxication, and the pleasing flow of spirits which it occasions lasts many hours, and is never followed by sadness, languor or debility” (Vol. 5, 265-66).  Starbucks would have loved this man!  Rumford showed by experiment that the flavor is contained in the oils which can evaporate, that boiling water best extracts these oils, and that stirring or temperature change causes the oils to disappear from the resulting coffee.  Thus, he designed his coffee maker, which is shown in Fig. 7.  It is essentially a modern drip coffee pot, with gold-plated mesh filters of different sizes for different numbers of cups, and a boiling water jacket which may not have reduced evaporation, but at least kept the coffee hot.  This work was done later in his life in France, and I doubt that Jane lived long enough to have advantage from it, although Edward might.


I have tried to outline the life of a fascinating contemporary of Jane Austen’s—a man whose frailties and inconsistencies did not eclipse the fact that he was a great experimental scientist.  Moreover, Rumford really tried, more than most of his aristocratic associates, to apply science to the well-being of the population.  I have sketched some of the other technological advances of the time, and remain fascinated by how little they seem reflected in Jane’s life or work—except for the Rumford fireplace!  Was this included in the original 1803 edition of “Susan,” sold by her father to a publisher for ten pounds?  My guess is “yes.”  Even if Jane finished “Susan” in 1799, Rumford had been publicizing his fireplace for four years, and clearly many of the gentry were only too willing to change their fireplaces and get rid of the smoke, as well as to save fuel and have a warmer room.  It does not seem certain in what year Jane revised “Susan” to become the Northanger Abbey published after her death.  She in fact referred to it as “Miss Catherine” in writing to Fanny Knight on 13 March 1817: “‘Miss Catherine’ is put on the shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out.”  It seems likely that Sanditon’s Mr. Parker installed Rumford fireplaces in all his houses!





1. The word “science” was beginning to take its present meaning in J. A’s time, but was still popularly used more closely to our “skills.”  Sir William Lucas did not doubt that Mr. Darcy was adept at the science . . . of dancing!



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1952.

Rumford, Benjamin Thompson, Count.  The Collected Works of Count Rumford.  Ed. Sanborn C. Brown.  Havard: Belknap Press. 5 vols. 1968 – 70.


Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page