Stoves, Spies, and Scientists | Los Angeles Public Library
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Stoves, Spies, and Scientists

Andrea Borchert, Librarian, Science, Technology & Patents Department,
Count Rumford
Count Rumford

It’s Summer! Congratulations to everyone for making it through these last few frigid months. Do you know it got as cold as 37℉ in January here in Los Angeles? That’s cold! But we made it through it. With central heating, and fuzzy slippers, cocoa and stoic expressions we made it through. When colonists the came to America, especially the northeastern parts of America, they faced the same problem. The winters were much colder than they were use to, so much colder than winters in England. Colonists tried to deal with it as best they could, even without fuzzy slippers and central heating.

Not Los Angeles

Instead Americans built massive fireplaces, some twice as big as the ones they’d had in England. It wasn’t enough. It was still cold. It was so cold that there was a theory, called the Buffon theory of New World Degeneracy, that argued that all animals (and maybe people) in America, were degenerate (smaller, weaker, stupider) than animals from Europe, because it was so cold and humid. Thomas Jefferson disliked this theory so much that he sent a Buffon a moose, just to prove him wrong. We can only hope that this went down a little like that scene from Godfather.

Moose or no moose it was cold and colonists were sick of it. They wanted more than their smoky, inefficient fireplaces could give them. One fireplace hater wrote extensively on the problem with fireplaces saying,  “in severe weather a man is scorched before, while he is froze behind” while “the greatest part of the heat of the fire is lost”. The same complainant also pointed out, “wood, our common fuel, which within these hundred years might be had at every man’s door, must now be fetched near one hundred miles to some towns”*. This whiner’s name was Benjamin Franklin.

Of course, being Benjamin Franklin, he didn’t just complain about freezing cold winters. Franklin set out to develop a new stove to defeat the cold! This was harder than you might think because in the 1700s no one was completely sure how heat worked. Was heat some sort of invisible liquid (the Caloric theory)? Did heat have something to do with motion (the Kinetic theory)?

Franklin’s experimentation with heat led him to invent the Franklin Stove around 1740. He called it the Pennsylvania Stove, but Americans have been calling it (and other stoves) the Franklin Stove ever since. The Franklin Stove was a free standing metal fireplace. According to the EPA Journal, the Franklin Stove was 6 times more heating efficient than a fireplace because it had more exposed metal surfaces and those surfaces would heat the air.** Good job Mr. Franklin! Problem solved, right?


Nope. The Franklin Stove never caught on, probably because it didn’t work. Franklin’s method of releasing smoke, through a hole under the backplate of the stove, would only work if “the walls of the smoke-egress remained uniformly warmer than the outside air” (Benjamin Franklin’s Science, p209). For the stove to work properly, it needed to stay hot. If it cooled, smoke would flood the room. Franklin never fixed this problem. But then he was busy.

Luckily for all of those smoke-choked and freezing Americans, David Rittenhouse was ready to help Franklin out. David Rittenhouse was a self educated mathematician and astronomer. He was also a talented craftsman known for developing and improving scientific instruments. He improved the Franklin Stove by replacing the U-shaped flue with an L-shaped one that let smoke out of the chimney no matter the stove’s temperature.*** But people still usually called it a Franklin Stove, not a Rittenhouse Stove. The Franklin Stove just sounds better.

              U-Shaped Flue in a Franklin Stove                    L-Shaped Flue in a Rittenhouse Stove
                                                                                       (still usually called a Franklin Stove)

Count RumfordSo, here are two successful Revolutionary War era scientists; two Americans, statesmen (Rittenhouse was also Director of the U.S. Mint), patriots, and scientists, who invented stoves. But, there is another noteworthy American stove maker from this era. He’s just a little different. He’s the American Count.

Benjamin Thompson was from Massachusetts. He fought in the Revolutionary War too, but on the other side. He spied on the Continental Army for the British and then fled to England. In England, he was knighted. But, he wasn’t just a knight. He moved to Bavaria to continue spying for Britain. In Bavaria, he began to work for the Bavarian Court and was eventually made into an Imperial Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He chose the name Count Rumford, after a town in New Hampshire. I can just imagine the people of that town, hearing that there was now a Count Rumford in Bavaria and saying “He’s Count a what-now?”.

Count Rumford was a busy man. He worked to improve conditions for soldiers. He opened workhouses. He invented the double boiler and performed experiments on the nature of heat. For example, Rumford checked the weight of brass cannons after they were heated by friction and found no difference between their weight hot and at room temperature. This made the caloric theory, the theory that heat was a mysterious fluid that flowed through the world, suspect. Fluids, even mysterious ones, have weight.

Count Rumford was well versed and knowledgeable on theories of heat, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the fireplace he designed worked. He made the front opening of the fireplace smaller, tilted the inside walls of the fireplace, and narrowed the throat of the chimney to improve airflow. These changes led to fireplaces that were less smoky and more efficient. They were called Rumford Stoves.

The Rumford fireplace (on the right) and an old fireplace (on the left) the Rumford fireplace has a reduced width and depth and an angled interior.

Side view of an old (left) chimney and Rumford Fireplace (right) chimney.
The throat of the new chimney (A) has been narrowed to 10 cm.

But Rumford wasn’t satisfied with that! He was a relentless worker and self promoter in a wide range of fields (just like Franklin!). Rumford was also fascinated by nutrition. He thought it was possible to feed poor people with more nutritious and cheaper food.  His most famous recipe is Rumford Soup.

Rumford Soup is dried yellow peas, pearl barley, and potatoes, cooked for 3 hours at a low heat and seasoned with salt and vinegar. The results of this recipe are...gummy. Even Rumford admitted “[these soups] are certainly capable of a variety of improvements” like adding an onion or carrot, if you want to be fancy. I made some so you don’t have to.

Rumford Soup

It turned into more of a savory porridge than a soup. Rumford soup didn’t seem that bad until I tried to season it with vinegar, like the recipe suggested. But it is filling and cheap, which is what he was going for. Still, everything else being equal, I prefer Rumford’s inventions to his recipes.

The inventors who built America’s fireplaces and got us through those long, cold winters didn’t let things like a revolutionary war, houses full of smoke, or poorly understood physics get in the way of their quest to heat their homes. As colonial scientists they met every challenge, whether it was feeding the poor in Bavaria or helping to get the French into a war with England. Diplomats, businessmen, spies, scientists...institutional cooks, you could say they wore many hats!

Ben Franklin
Yes, like that. Thank you Ben.


Book Cover* The works of Benjamin Franklin, containing several political and historical tracts not included in any former edition, and many letters, official and private, not hitherto published.  An Account of the Newly Invented Pennsylvanian Fireplace. 973.3 F831b

** Kowalczyk, John F. "Answering a Burning Question." EPA Journal 15.6 (1989): 26. ProQuest. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

*** ”Know Your Wood-Burning Stoves”. Popular Mechanics.

David Rittenhouse.  520.92 R613Hi 1980

Book CoverCount Rumford: scientist, soldier, statesman, spy: the extraordinary life of a scientific genius. 92 R936Bro 2001

Book CoverBenjamin Franklin’s Science.  530 F831Co

Book CoverHome Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century.  697 A217

Collected Works of Count Rumford: Public Institutions. Of Food: Particularly of Feeding the Poor.  500 R936

Book CoverAt Home: A Short History of Private Life.  92 B9166-1

Book CoverLewis and Clark: pioneering naturalists.  570.973 C989 2003

Book CoverNotes on the State of Virginia.  975.5 J45 1999

Burns, William E. "Heating Methods Colonial North America: 17th and 18th Centuries." Daily Life through History.ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.