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Count Rumford: Inventor, Traitor

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The Count of Concord

 

Heath Robbins

Franklin D. Roosevelt, it is said, counted as the three most brilliant Americans Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Thompson of Concord, New Hampshire. Benjamin who?

Well might one ask, and the most enjoyable way to find out arrives in the form of Nicholas Delbanco’s The Count of Concord (Dalkey Archive Press, $34.95), a novel about a novelty: the New England farm boy who chose the wrong side in the American Revolution, became a British officer and a spy, Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, and inventor of the Rumford fireplace, among dozens of other innovations.

“He was at ease with fire,” says Delbanco of his subject, and heat — physical, political, sexual — agitates his elegant, elaborate, elliptical prose: “Kind critic, look on Rumford’s work — those great sprawling edifices, the mighty schemes and verdant paths, the brilliant chevaliers and ladies, the pamphlets and machinery and battlements all come to dust — and ask yourself unblinkingly: how have I failed, how must I change my life?”

I raced through the novel. I can’t say I understood all of it, but I sure enjoyed the ride. Read it for the history. Read it for the science. Read it for the sex. Read it for the astonishing richness of one man’s real and imagined life.

Find out why Rumfords are the best fireplaces.

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