We owe a lot to Benjamin Thompson.

We know, he’s not exactly a household name. But Sir Benjamin Thompson, to be accurate, is the man to thank for most of our modern meals, our 21st century kitchens, and—without a doubt—our cast iron.

A man “entitled to the esteem and gratitude of mankind, for devoting his talents with unwearied assiduity to objects of public usefulness” where “in England, in France, in Germany, in all parts of the continent, the people are enjoying the blessings of his discoveries; and from the humble dwellings of the poor even to the palaces of sovereigns all will remember that his sole aim was to be always useful to his fellow men.”

It’s no surprise then that this unconventional inventor turned autodidact physicist was also a count—Count Rumford, as he was most famously known during his heyday at the end of the 18th century. But long before his regal titles—also Knight of the Orders of the White Eagle and St. Stanislaus, Privy Counsellor of State to the duke of Bavaria, and Count of the Holy Roman Empire—Rumford was just a precocious New England lad, born to little means in small-town Massachusetts, with an early affinity for science, mathematics, and fireworks.

(Footnote: He would also become a bit of a turncoat, serving as a British spy during the Revolutionary War, charged as a Tory, then exiled to London, leaving his wife and daughter behind in Rumford, New Hampshire, now Concord—hence the nickname.)

Traitor or not, we still find ourselves indebted to his pyromania, which would problem-solve the panorama of everyday life and, most notably, forever change the field of thermodynamics through his groundbreaking study of heat.

“To engage in experiments on heat was always one of my most agreeable employments [since the age of 17],” he wrote in one of his many essays. “Whenever I could snatch a moment, I returned to it anew, and always with increased interest.”

Luckily for us, Rumford used this impulse, with the aid of firearms and cannons, to debunk the commonly held theory that heat was a liquid form of matter, discovering that it was in fact a form of motion, eventually leading to one of the earliest measurements of heat and mechanical energy, as well as countless observations on heat’s transfer across various materials, via conduction, convection, and radiation.

Best of all, he would actually apply his findings, with his inventions ranging from improved chimneys and fireplaces—to give off more heat, burn less wood, and limit smoke, thanks in part to cast iron, no less—to a slew of culinary creations: the double boiler, the percolating coffeepot, the preamble for sous vide, and especially, for our purposes, the kitchen range.

 

Before Rumford’s time, the Western world largely cooked their food inside of an open hearth. It was a hot, messy, even dangerous affair, with heavy cauldrons hung over a live fire or placed directly on the blazing coals. Enclosed ranges had been attempted before, dating back to Ancient China, Egypt, and Rome, but it wasn’t until Rumford’s cast-iron version, circa the 1790s, that we could use our cooking heat to its full potential.

Always first in line for innovation, this 18th-century Shaker kitchen incorporates Rumford’s principles of captured heat.

Centered around a single fire source, this massive brick range featured a flat top with a series of different-size burners and separate iron-clad interior chambers, including a roasting oven, with heat levels able to be controlled individually. Like his fireplaces, it was more heat retentive, fuel efficient, and safe than an open hearth, and society never looked back.

In fact, his inventions became so popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean that the Rumford fireplace would appear in both Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thomas Jefferson would install multiple Rumford fireplaces and a Rumford range at Monticello. And he was eventually deemed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt one of the five most interesting men to have ever lived.

Luckily for him, Rumford’s range coincided with the rise of American iron mining at the end of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the 19th century, a booming manufacturing industry was underway, making a medley of products for heating and cooking. Cast iron stoves became a staple—and centerpiece—of American kitchens, gilded with porcelain and nickel and cast into elaborately decorated designs.

Of all the metals, cast iron was the most “durable, and better on many accounts,” wrote Rumford, as well as affordable, with his cast-iron fireplace grates costing “only seven shillings and sixpence sterling” in his day. Such parts, he noted, “should never be made of any other material.”

Enter cast-iron cookware, with Rumford even designing his own set to fit his kitchen systems, and now-iconic cookware companies hopping on the bandwagon. Like Griswold Manufacturing, which started as a stove accessories company before moving into cookware in the 1870s. Or Wagner Manufacturing, which, a decade later, was founded with the help of a former stove company employee. Others, like Atlanta and Favorite, began as stove companies themselves.

Those numbers on the bottom of vintage skillets? They directly corresponded to the various-sized “stove eyes,” or burners invented atop the Rumford range. But that’s another story.

Through his research, Rumford knew cast iron, and the man had many opinions on the matter, most of which we can’t help but agree on.

From cleaning it: “If, instead of . . . keeping them bright, which notable housewives are apt to do, in order that their kitchen furniture may appear neat and clean, they be simply washed and rinsed out with warm water, and wiped with a soft dishcloth.” 

To crafting its seasoning: “The process by which this covering is gradually formed is similar to that by which some gunsmiths brown the barrels of fowling-pieces…to defend it from a contact with those substances which are capable of dissolving and corroding it, or, in other words, to prevent the further progress of rust.”

Sure, he was no patriot, but it is with good reason that there is a Rumford Chair of Physics professorship at Harvard College, and a Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London, and a Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For his contributions to American cuisine—with some food historians crediting his range, which was quickly adopted by French chefs, to revolutionizing restaurant fare—we gladly forgive his sins.

Rumford died on the outskirts of Paris in 1814 at the age of 61, and today, the few Yanks who know his name might only by accident, via the baking powder cans that still bear it on grocery store shelves. Until now, many others likely never noticed that the label features a silhouette of a bewigged gentleman, depicted and denominated in honor of one New England expat’s historic scientific endeavors.

In a 1908 cookbook, the powder’s parent company, Rumford Chemical Works, declared him “the grand master of the great guild of chefs, the first and greatest scientist of the kitchen.” 

To that we say: Here, here.

October 27, 2021 — Dennis Powell