1753 -1814

World-renowned Soldier, Statesman, Inventor & Scientist

National Historic Landmark


Born Woburn, Massachusetts

     Controversy was as much a part of Rumford’s life as was brilliance and achievement, so it’s not easy to picture this flamboyant figure in the simple setting of the farmhouse on Elm Street that was his birthplace. But that is where life began for Sir Benjamin Thompson at the home of his grandfather on March 26, 1753.

     Perhaps it was John Fowle, the Harvard educated village teacher who first noticed signs of talent in young Thompson - his skill with mechanical devices, his almost faultless command of language and grammar before his thirteenth year. These skills later won him the right, along with friend and neighbor Loammi Baldwin (regarded by many as America’s first engineer), to attend Professor John Winthrop’s lectures on science at Harvard.

Early Career

     Apprenticeships in the importing trade and the study of medicine, too, absorbed much of his young life until at the age of 19 he became a schoolmaster in Concord (earlier called Rumford) N.H. There he met and married a wealthy widow, Mrs. Sarah Rolf, who was also the daughter of Reverend Timothy Walker. In this position of influence, young Thompson met Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire who was impressed enough to name him Major in the 2nd Provincial Regiment.


     This commission, awarded to him over older men, and his continued contacts with influential British officers, such as General Gage in Boston, set him in the center of controversy. In 1774 a committee of Concord citizens charged him with “being unfriendly to the cause of liberty.” Though acquitted, he felt the atmosphere so inimical that he returned to Woburn and to the home of his mother where he was joined by his wife and infant daughter. But the controversy stalked him and similar charges were brought against him after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Again he was released after no evidence was produced. But this time he left and found his way to Boston and an English ship during the British evacuation of March 1776.


     In England his scientific career prospered. While serving in the Government Colonial Office his scientific study and experiments, particularly with gunpowder, were so successful that he was elected in 1779, at the age of 26, to the prestigious Royal Society. In 1783, through the intercession of Prince Maximilian (whom he met while traveling in Strasbourg, France), he was invited by the Elector of Bavaria to accept a high post as a military/civilian advisor.
     With the blessing of his English sponsors, Sir Benjamin accepted and was made Major-General of Calvary and Privy Councelor of state, Bavaria. Thompson then turned his talents to sound reform.


     The Army, poorly paid and ill-clothed and -equipped, was in a state of low morale. The streets of Munich were crowded with unemployed beggars. The resourceful Thompson offered the beggars the useful employment of making uniforms for the Army. To the Army he offered higher pay, free education for soldiers and their children, and important public works projects to occupy time not consumed in training.
     One of these projects was the now famous English Gardens devised by Thompson to reclaim a large wasteland just outside the city of Munich. This wooded park with lakes, patios, and drives still exists as one of the city’s major recreational areas.
     In 1791 Sir Benjamin Thompson was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He assumed the title of Count Rumford after the New Hampshire town where his spectacular career began.


     A bronze statue of Count Rumford commissioned by the king of Bavaria in 1867 stands on Maximilian Strasse as testimony to the gratitude of the citizens of Munich. An exact replica, cast in the same foundry, was donated to the citizens of Woburn in 1900 by Marshall Tidd. It stands on the grounds


     Count Rumford in 1796 gave $5,000 each to the Royal Society of Great Britain and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to award medals every two years for outstanding scientific research on heat or light. Among those who have received the Rumford Medal from the Royal Society are Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, James Maxwell, and John Tyndall. Among those who have received the award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are Josiah Gibbs, Thomas Edison, Albert Michelson, Irving Langmuir, Arthur Compton, Karl Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Edwin Land. The residue of this estate was left to Harvard University with which the present Rumford Professorship was established.


The Rumford Historical Association, 90 Elm Street, Woburn, Massachusetts was founded March 26, 1877, for the purpose of maintaining the birthplace of Benjamin Thompson as a site of historic interest. The birthplace contains reconstructed models of Count Rumford’s scientific experiments and inventions. Also on display is a copy of a portrait of Count Rumford by Gainsborough and a library of Rumford biographies and essays.

This booklet prepared by the Woburn Historical Commission, MCMLXXV

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